Silicosis: A Silent Killer

Silica is everywhere: it’s in shoes, it’s in sealants, it’s in tools, and sometimes, it’s in the air we breathe. It’s so common, chances are you encounter it multiple times a day. There are many different forms of silica, and some of them can actually make you sick. One form is called crystalline silica. This is a very popular element and is most commonly found as quartz. Quartz is the second most common form of crystalline silica and is found in most types of rocks. Crystalline silica also happens to be the most dangerous form of silica.

So if crystalline silica is so common and so dangerous, why aren’t we all sick? The reason for that is that crystalline silica in its solid form is not harmful. If it’s still a rock, or otherwise not being ground into a powder and floating in the air, it won’t hurt us. However, when it becomes a powder & is airborne, it is very easily inhaled by those who are around it. Once it settles into your lungs, it can lead to all sorts of health issues including COPD, emphysema, lung cancer, and occasionally, kidney failure.

Where is Crystalline Silica?

Crystalline silica is most commonly used in quarrying, mining, mineral processing, foundry, the jewelry industry, brick & tiles, slate working, stone crushing & dressing, tunneling, building restoration, glass manufacturing, pottery/ceramic businesses, and construction sites. All of these industries require certain processes that lead to crystalline silica being ground into a fine powder (like blasting, grinding, and sawing). That powder then becomes airborne and everyone in the general vicinity is at risk for inhalation.

Crystalline silica dust is not visible to the naked eye, and is so light it takes a very long time to settle, which makes it extra dangerous. Often, it remains airborne for several days before finally settling onto a surface. When the extremely fine particles of crystalline silica are inhaled, they settle deep into the lungs and are not exhalable. Here, they damage the lining of the air sacs in your lungs which eventually leads to scarring (picture breathing tiny rock crumbs then imagine what that would do to your lungs). The build-up of scar tissue in these areas can lead to huge fibroses (or clumps of fibrous tissue) which understandably make it difficult to breathe.

Why is it Important?

Silicosis kills more than 100 people every year, and is considered a serious illness. There’s currently no cure for this condition, but there are many ways we can treat it. Diagnosis of silicosis involves chest x-rays, breathing tests, CT scans of the chest, bronchoscopies of the lungs, and often a lung biopsy. Once you are diagnosed, your doctor can evaluate the degree of the disease and proceed with treatment. There are three types or degrees of silicosis: acute, chronic, and accelerated.

Acute silicosis is when the onset of symptoms is sudden & extreme, and the lungs become very inflamed & can fill with fluid. People with acute silicosis may have a constant cough, lose weight, be abnormally tired, and have fever or sharp chest pain. They generally require immediate treatment, often involving supplemental oxygen & inhaled medications to encourage effective breathing. Chronic silicosis is when the crystalline silica dust causes specific areas of swelling in the lungs (as opposed to the entire lungs) and chest lymph nodes, and the symptoms are long term and constant. Patients with chronic silicosis may need long term inhalers, home oxygen, and/or regular nebulized breathing treatments.  Accelerated silicosis is when the swelling in the lungs and symptoms occur faster than that in chronic silicosis.

The Severity.

Over time, these symptoms will worsen and some patients may eventually require oxygen, inhalers, and other devices to help them breathe adequately. Others may need decongestants and inhaled steroids to help keep the lungs clear. Once in the advanced stages of the disease, treatment becomes very similar to that of other chronic lung diseases. Inhalers, nebulizers, home oxygen, and support of doctors from multiple disciplines are all vital for effective treatment of silicosis. It’s also vital for those with silicosis to avoid sources of silica and other lung irritants, like smoke, pollution, and allergens. Often, this requires a career change, and counselors are available to assist with this transition. Having silicosis also increases your risk of contracting tuberculosis, developing lung cancer, and having chronic bronchitis.

How Can I Treat This?

The best way to treat any disease is to prevent it, and luckily for us, prevention of silicosis is fairly simple. If you are working in an environment that involves the use of crystalline silica and may result in silica powder becoming airborne, be sure that the areas involved have proper ventilation systems. Avoid using compressed air, and use water sprays and wet methods for cutting, chipping, drilling, sawing, etc. When possible, substitute non-crystalline silica for blasting purposes. Using respirators is your first line of defense against airborne toxins, and may be the most important prevention factor. Also, do not eat, drink, or smoke near silica dust, and always be sure to wash your hands when you contact the substance or any the areas inhabited by crystalline silica.

ProHealth Can Help!

The thing that makes prevention of silicosis not as effective as it could be is a lack of awareness. To help combat that, OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is now requiring silica testing for those employed in certain types of work environments. If you own/operate/work at an environment described above, or think you may be at risk, the team at ProHealth is here to help.

We now offer OSHA compliant silica medical surveillance. These tests and physical exams specifically screen for early-identification of exposure-related health effects in those who may have been exposed to crystalline silica dust. If you’re interested in implementing this service for your employees, or think you are at risk and would like to be tested, give us a call and speak with Megan Siefert at (850) 554-9084. We will be happy to help you set up the process & move forward with testing.