BACKGROUND: The importance of occupational exposure to airborne agents in the development of obstructive disease is uncertain. Studying the relation in a community population has the benefit of reducing the healthy worker effect seen in studies of working populations. METHODS: The prevalence of obstructive lung disease was examined in a Norwegian general population aged 18-73 in a two phased cross sectional survey. In the second phase a stratified sample (n = 1512) of those responding in the first phase was invited for clinical and spirometric examination (attendance rate 84%). Attenders were asked to state all jobs lasting greater than 6 months since leaving school and to say whether they had been exposed to any of seven specific agents and work processes potentially harmful to the lungs. RESULTS: The prevalence of asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease was 2.4% and 5.4%, respectively; spirometric airflow limitation (FEV1/FVC less than 0.7 and FEV1 less than 80% of predicted values) was observed in 4.5% of the population. All jobs were categorised into three groups according to the degree of potential airborne exposure. Having a job with a high degree of airborne exposure increased the sex, age, and smoking adjusted odds ratio for obstructive lung disease (asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease) by 3.6 (95% confidence interval 1.3 to 9.9) compared with having a job without airborne exposure; the association with spirometric airflow limitation was 1.4 (0.3 to 5.2). Occupational exposures to quartz, metal gases, aluminium production and processing, and welding were significantly associated with obstructive lung disease after adjusting for sex, age, and smoking habit, the adjusted odds ratios varying between 2.3 and 2.7. Occupational exposure to quartz and asbestos was significantly related to spirometric airflow limitation in people older than 50. CONCLUSION: Occupational title and exposure to specific agents and work processes may be independent markers of obstructive lung disease in the general population.