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Silicosis: Risk and Detection

Silicosis is a serious lung disease involving the scarring and hardening of a patient's lung tissue. People develop silicosis from breathing in crystalline silica. As a result, it predominantly strikes those who have worked in environments with high concentrations of silica dust. Miners, construction workers, stonecutters, and manufacturing workers are among high-risk occupations. There is no effective treatment for silicosis - it can only be prevented.

A Brief History of Silicosis

The rise of silicosis coincided with the age of industrialization. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, workers increasingly moved into mining, industrial, and manufacturing jobs. These industries exposed growing numbers of people to various occupational diseases before the advent of modern workplace safety measures.

An infamous tunneling project in Hawk's Nest, West Virginia during the 1930s raised silicosis to national prominence. An estimated 2,500 workers helped dig a three-mile tunnel through a mountain with almost no protection from the high concentration of silica dust at the worksite. Approximately 90% of these workers developed silicosis, and 764 workers eventually died. The vast majority of states enacted legislation after the Hawk's Nest incident. Government regulators, employers, and unions eventually became much more aware of the risk silica dust posed to workers.

Continuing Problem With Silica Exposure

While the use of silica in the workplace has been tightly regulated since the 1970s, silicosis remains a modern problem and a prevalent occupational disease. The disease features a considerable latency period (the time between exposure and noticeable symptoms). Fifteen years can elapse from when a person is exposed to silica to when silicosis symptoms are detectable.

This latency problem is reflected in mortality rates. Between 1968 and 2002, approximately 74 million death certificates in the United States listed silicosis as a contributing factor or cause of death.

Risk of Silicosis Among Workers

Most people with silicosis can trace their disease to workplace exposure to silica dust. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recognizes the following major sources of silica exposure:

  • Sandblasting
  • Crushing and drilling rock and concrete
  • Masonry and concrete work
  • Mining and tunneling
  • Demolition work
  • Cement and asphalt manufacturing

Silica dust can be a danger to many different occupations. Miners are particularly at risk. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration plays a large role in regulating silica exposure, and silicosis is a major concern in international mining operations where fewer workplace safety regulations exist. Other at-risk occupations include construction workers, stonecutters, glass manufacturers, foundry workers, shipbuilders, and even agricultural workers.

Detecting Silicosis

The most prominent silicosis symptoms include shortness of breath, severe cough, chest pains, weight loss, and fatigue. However, these symptoms could take more than a decade to develop after exposure. Early symptoms are usually mild and include cough, sputum, and progressive shortness of breath.

These symptoms can also be a sign of many different lung diseases. A doctor can provide you with individualized information about your health condition. Often a medical exam, chest x-ray, and pulmonary function tests are necessary to confirm whether a patient has silicosis.

The medical community recognizes three types of silicosis. The type of silicosis a person develops depends on the length and amount of exposure to silica.

  • Simple Chronic Silicosis - The most common form of silicosis caused by long-term exposure (more than twenty years) to low amounts of silica dust. Prominent symptoms include swelling of the chest and lymph nodes.
  • Accelerated Silicosis - Caused by medium-term exposure (five to fifteen years) to higher amounts of silica dust. Patients notice symptoms earlier than patients with simple chronic silicosis.
  • Acute Silicosis - Caused by short-term exposure (weeks to months) to high amounts of silica dust. Acute silicosis quickly becomes symptomatic and the lungs become very inflamed and can fill with fluid, causing severe shortness of breath and a low blood oxygen level. Patients can die within a matter of months.

Related Diseases: Tuberculosis and Lung Cancer

Silicosis can also contribute to other diseases. The medical community has long recognized an association between silicosis and tuberculosis. There may also be an association between silica exposure and lung cancer.

Smoking can further increase a person's risk of developing complications from silicosis (and many other serious lung diseases). Smoking is strongly discouraged for people with a work history that exposed them to any airborne toxins such as silica dust.

Legal Help After Developing Silicosis

It may have taken decades before you realize how much damage was done to your lungs and body after exposure to hazardous substances. You may still be able to make a claim for compensation after developing complications from silicosis or other serious lung diseases. Contact an experienced toxic tort lawyer to get answers to your questions.

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