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August 06, 2015
NIOSH: New data show silicosis is a continuing threat

According to a new Science Blog post from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, new national data show that silicosis continues to cause or contribute to the deaths of about 100 Americans each year. Keep reading to learn more about this important workplace safety issue.

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Silicosis is a potentially fatal but preventable occupational lung disease caused by inhaling respirable particles containing crystalline silicon dioxide (silica). Quartz, a type of crystalline silica, is the second most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust, and workers across a wide range of occupations and industries are exposed to silica-containing dusts. The risks, causes, and prevention of this avoidable disease have been known for decades. There is no cure for silicosis and only symptomatic treatment is available, including lung transplantation for the most severe cases.

According to NIOSH, the most common form of silicosis, chronic silicosis, takes at least 10 years from first exposure to develop, and death does not typically occur until many years after that. Onset of silicosis can be faster and the severity of disease worse in the setting of high-level exposures, which can cause accelerated or acute silicosis. From 2011-2013, 12 people younger than 45 years of age had silicosis listed as causing or contributing to death. Although the details of their cases are unknown, NIOSH says this is concerning because silicosis deaths in these young adults may reflect higher exposures than those causing chronic silicosis mortality in older individuals.

Examples of occupations with known high silica exposure include mining, quarrying, sandblasting, rock drilling, road construction, pottery making, stone masonry, and tunneling operations. New settings for occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica continue to emerge. For example, hazardous silica exposures have been newly documented in the United States during hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil wells and during fabrication and installation of engineered stone countertops.

While silicosis mortality in the United States has declined over time, the continuing occurrence of silicosis deaths in young adults and reports of new occupations and tasks that place workers at risk for silicosis underscore the need for strengthening efforts to limit workplace exposure to respirable crystalline silica, says NIOSH.

NIOSH recommends that healthcare providers consider reporting silicosis cases to their health departments. In 2010, silicosis was a reportable condition in 25 states. State health departments can help strengthen silicosis prevention efforts by identifying silicosis cases through review of state morbidity and mortality data and investigating the circumstances surrounding silicosis cases.

In August 2013, OSHA issued a current proposed rule to reduce the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for crystalline silica and create comprehensive standards for reducing exposure among construction, general industry, and maritime workers. The agency estimates that the rule would save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silica each year.

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