Silicosis is a preventable but potentially fatal lung disease. It is caused by inhaling silica (crystalline silicon dioxide) particles. Because quartz, a crystalline silica, is so abundant in the earth’s crust, workers in a wide range of occupations are exposed to the dust on a regular basis.
Medical professionals have known about the dangers of inhaling this dust for decades. There is no cure once a person develops silicosis, but there are treatments available. In the most severe cases of the disease, a lung transplant is often the only option. In a report published in 2015, data showed that silicosis contributed to or caused the death of approximately 100 deaths in America each year.
Chronic silicosis, the most common form of the disease, takes about 10 years to develop from the date of first exposure. Death does not occur, typically, until several years later. If workers are exposed to high levels of silica, the disease may be accelerated.
Occupations that have known high rates of exposure to silica include: quarrying, mining, rock drilling, sandblasting, road construction, stone masonry, pottery making, and tunneling operations. People who fabricate and install engineered stone countertops are also at risk for exposure, as are people who perform hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil wells.
The mortality rate attributed to silicosis has declined in the United States over the years but continues to occur. The fact that there are still people dying from this disease makes it clear that limiting workplace exposure needs to happen more regularly. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has prevention strategies in place that employers in the occupations listed, and others, can put in place.
If you work in an occupation that has a known risk of exposure to silicosis, it is important that you see your doctor on a yearly basis for a routine health screening. The earlier silicosis is detected, the sooner treatment can begin.
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