THE DANGERS OF SILICOSIS
Silica is an extremely common mineral compound found throughout numerous industries and applications across the globe. It exists in nature primarily as quartz, although in many areas it is a major component in sand. It is the second most common mineral in the earth’s crust. Occupationally, it affects approximately 2.3 million individuals in the United States alone. Any occupation which involves the handling or use of rock, brick, or sand, or participates in drilling, quarrying, or tunneling carries the risk of silica exposure. Inhaling crystalline silica dust can lead to debilitating and fatal lung cancers and diseases, most notably silicosis.
What Is Silicosis?
Silicosis is a lung affliction caused by breathing dust which contains fine particles of crystalline silica. If silica particles are inhaled, they become embedded in the lungs. The lung tissues then react by developing fibrotic nodules and scarring around the trapped particles. The scar tissue makes the lungs hard and stiff. This scarring can greatly reduce the function of the lungs, making it difficult and sometimes painful to breathe.
Silicosis comes in three forms:
Chronic silicosis: The most common form of the disease, it may go undetected for years in the early stages. Chest X-rays may not reveal an abnormality until after 15 or 20 years of exposure. If you believe you are overexposed to silica dust, visit a doctor who knows about lung diseases. The progress of silicosis can only be stopped; but cannot be cured.
Accelerated silicosis: This type of silicosis tends to develop between 5 and 10 years after an exposure to high concentrations of crystalline silica dust. Examinations through x-rays and symptoms are often similar or exactly the same as chronic silicosis, but appear faster and accelerate quickly (hence the name).
Acute silicosis: Acute silicosis appears relatively rapidly after exposure to extreme amounts crystalline silica dust. There are recorded cases of patients showing signs of acute silicosis mere weeks after exposure. In these cases, symptoms are disabling and develop very quickly, including shortness of breath, weight loss, cough, and often imminent death.
Because of its abundance in nature, the use of silica has been in practice since ancient times in various applications. Its health risks – those that come primarily with exposure to silica dust inhalation – were first documented in 1700 by Dr. Bernardino Ramazzini (the man often credited with the advent of occupational medicine) when he recognized symptoms of silicosis in stone cutters.
Much later, in the early 1900s, Dr. Alice Hamilton saw the same connections between silicosis and the dust being inhaled by granite cutters. This discovery and the engineering demands that followed would eventually set in motion a gradually increased awareness of silica dangers across the globe. Today, occupational health and safety agencies all across North America strictly enforce regulations which limit and protect workers from silica dust exposure.
Symptoms of Silicosis
Because in many cases silicosis does not develop for several years after exposure, patients may be slow to experience symptoms. This is why respirable silica dust exposure is so dangerous – there is very little to inform a worker there’s a problem until it’s too late. Once developed, symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath, worsened by physical exertion
- Persistent and severe cough
- Chest pain
- Bluish skin
- Rapid breathing
- Weight loss and lack of appetite
- Dark spots appearing in nail beds
Eventually, as the lungs’ ability to perform efficiently wanes, silica patients may require the support of oxygen-supplying or other respiration-assistance devices.
The three types of silicosis each affect the lungs in a slightly unique way:
Chronic silicosis will involve lung swelling and expansion of lymph nodes in the chest, which leads to difficulty breathing.
Patients of acute silicosis will experience severe inflammation of the lungs as well as the introduction of fluid, which creates severe loss of breath and lowered levels of blood oxygen.
The lungs of an accelerated silicosis patient will experience the same symptoms as chronic silicosis, except they will develop must faster.
There is no known cure for silicosis, but it is 100 percent preventable. Treatment options are also limited, as physicians ordinarily simply instruct workers to permanently remove themselves from exposure zones, avoid respiratory irritants, and quit smoking. Silicosis often comes with respiratory infections, so antibiotics may also be prescribed.
That said, the best way to avoid the horrific and debilitating consequences of silicosis is to prevent it from occurring altogether. Employers who are involved with the use and handling of silica in the workplace are required by law to install various measures to ensure worker exposure is below a dangerous level, and it is the workers’ responsibility to abide by those measures.
Engineering controls such as ventilation systems, work displacement, or substitution with an equal-yet-less-hazardous material may be used. Workers should comply with and respect any installed systems. Handling dust properly when it’s created is also important. Dust should never be cleaned with air or other procedures which could reintroduce it into the breathable atmosphere – use wet cleaning methods instead.
Where respiratory protection is required, workers should undergo thorough medical examinations to determine their safe compatibility with respirators, and be trained in how to use, store, and maintain them.
Workers should use any on-site facilities provided, such as showers and washing stations, to ensure silica dust does not cross contaminate. A change of clothes is critical to avoid carrying silica dust home with you on your work clothes.
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