Silica Dust Health Hazards
Understanding what silica is, where it comes from, and what activities produce respirable silica dust is essential in properly limiting exposure to it. With this in mind, the severity of the diseases that one may develop as a result of exposure to silica dust, is also imperative. These diseases include silicosis, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Silicosis is the scarring of the lungs from over-exposure to respirable crystalline silica. This scarring makes it extremely difficult to breathe from the buildup of silica dust. These tiny, microscopic particles settle within breathing passages, scarring them irreversibly. These scars stiffen overtime, thus making it harder to breathe. Silicosis killed 1,437 Americans between 2001 and 2010.1 There has been a recent rise in “black lung disease” from coal miners, specifically in the central Appalachian region.2 Black lung is slang for silicosis.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease encompasses a plethora of progressive lung diseases. These diseases include emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory (non-reversible) asthma. The connecting characteristic of these conditions is that airflow in the lungs is severely obstructed. Emphysema involves the bronchioles of the lungs being destroyed, thus impairing airflow out of the lungs. Chronic bronchitis involves inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes. This interferes with oxygen being delivered to the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs. It is important to note that people who develop COPD are at a much greater risk of developing lung cancer. Additionally, respiratory infections (including the flu and pneumonia), heart problems, and high blood pressure in lung arteries are other conditions which may be developed.3
Over-exposure to silica dust may also result in lung cancer. Lung cancer is actually the “leading cause of all cancer death among both men and women in the United States.”4 In the UK alone, approximately 800 people die each year from lung cancer brought on by silica dust.5 A report published in 2013 by CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians found that “there is strong and consistent evidence that silica exposure increases lung cancer risk.”4 It further found that exposure to silica is one of the greatest risk factors in developing lung cancer.
Silicosis, COPD, and lung cancer are three diseases nobody should have to live with, especially when they are largely preventable. All of these diseases are fatal, decreasing human lifespan substantially. While OSHA does have new rules in terms of how much respirable crystalline silica dust is allowed on construction sites, proper implementation of safety methods is essential to ensuring worker safety.
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