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  • silicosis is a lung disease caused by inhalation of silica, the second most common mineral on earth's crust?

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Classification and external resources
ICD-10 J62.
ICD-9 502
DiseasesDB 12117
MedlinePlus 000134
eMedicine med/2127
MeSH D012829

Silicosis (also known as Potter's rot) is a form of occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust, and is marked by inflammation and scarring in forms of nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs. It is a type of pneumoconiosis, from pneumo (lung) and konis (dust).

Silicosis (particularly the acute form) is characterized by shortness of breath, cough, fever, and cyanosis (bluish skin). It may often be misdiagnosed as pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), pneumonia, or tuberculosis.

The name silicosis (from the Latin silex or flint) was originally used by Visconti in 1870. The recognition of respiratory problems from breathing in dust dates to ancient Greeks and Romans.[1] Agricola, in the mid-1500s, wrote about lung problems from dust inhalation in miners. In 1713, Bernardino Ramazzini noted asthmatic symptoms and sand-like substances in the lungs of stone cutters. With industrialization, as opposed to hand tools, came increased production of dust. The pneumatic hammer drill was introduced in 1897 and sandblasting was introduced in about 1904[2], both significantly contributing to the increased prevalence of silicosis.



Silicon (Si) is the second most common element in the Earth's crust (oxygen is the most common). The compound silica, also known as silicon dioxide (SiO2), is formed from silicon and oxygen atoms. Since oxygen and silicon make up about 75% of the Earth, the compound silica is quite common. It is found in many rocks, such as marble, sandstone, flint and slate, and in some metallic ores. Silica is the main component of sand. It can also be in soil, mortar, plaster, and shingles. The cutting, breaking, crushing, drilling, grinding, or abrasive blasting of these materials may produce fine silica dust.

Silica occurs in 3 forms:(1) crystalline; (2) microcrystalline (or cryptocrystalline); and (3) amorphous (noncrystalline). "Free" silica is composed of pure silicon dioxide, not combined with other elements, whereas silicates are SiO2 combined with an appreciable portion of cations (e.g. talc, asbestos, and mica).

Crystalline silica exists in 7 different forms (polymorphs), depending upon the temperature of formation. The main 3 polymorphs are quartz, cristobalite, and tridymite. Quartz is subdivided into alpha and beta forms. In nature, most quartz is alpha-quartz and alpha-quartz comprises the bulk of crystalline silica. Quartz is the second most common mineral in the world (next to feldspar).[3]

Microcrystalline silica consists of minute quartz crystals bonded together with amorphous silica. Examples include flint and chert.

Amorphous silica consists of kieselgur (diatomite), from the skeletons of diatoms, and vitreous silica, produced by heating and then rapid cooling of crystalline silica. Amorphous silica is less toxic than crystalline, but not biologically inert, and diatomite, when heated, can convert to tridymite or cristobalite.

Silica flour is nearly pure SiO2 finely ground. Silica flour has been used as a polisher or buffer, as well as paint extender, abrasive, and filler for cosmetics. Silica flour has been associated with all types of silicosis, including acute silicosis.

Silicosis is due to deposition of fine respirable dust (less than 10 micrometers in diameter) containing crystalline silicon dioxide in the form of alpha-quartz, cristobalite, or tridymite.


When small silica dust particles are inhaled, they can embed themselves deeply into the tiny alveolar sacs and ducts in the lungs, where oxygen and carbon dioxide gases are exchanged. There, the lungs cannot clear out the dust by mucous or coughing.

When fine particles of silica dust are deposited in the lungs, macrophages that ingest the dust particles will set off an inflammation response by releasing tumor necrosis factors, interleukin-1, leukotriene B4 and other cytokines. In turn, these stimulate fibroblasts to proliferate and produce collagen around the silica particle, thus resulting in fibrosis and the formation of the nodular lesions. The inflammatory effects of crystalline silica are apparently mediated by the Nalp3 inflammasome.[4]

Furthermore, the surface of silicon dust can generate silicon-based radicals that lead to the production of hydroxyl and oxygen radicals, as well as hydrogen peroxide, which can inflict damage to the surrounding cells.

Characteristic lung tissue pathology in nodular silicosis consists of fibrotic nodules with concentric "onion-skinned" arrangement of collagen fibers, central hyalinization, and a cellular peripheral zone, with lightly birefringent particles seen under polarized light. The silicotic nodule is represents a specific tissue response to crystalline silica.[5] In acute silicosis, microscopic pathology shows a periodic acid-Schiff positive alveolar exudate (alveolar lipoproteinosis) and a cellular infiltrate of the alveolar walls.[6]


Silicosis is the most common occupational lung disease worldwide, it occurs everywhere but is especially common in developing countries.[7] From 1991 to 1995, China reported more than 24,000 deaths due to silicosis each year.[8] In the United States, it is estimated that one million-two million[9]) workers have had occupational exposure to crystalline silica dust and 59,000 of these workers will develop silicosis sometime in the course of their lives.[8]

According to CDC data[10], silicosis in the United States is relatively rare. The incidence of deaths due to silicosis declined by 84% between 1968 and 1999, and only 187 deaths in 1999 had silicosis as the underlying or contributing cause.[11] Additionally, cases of silicosis in Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio are highly correlated to industry[12] and occupation[12].

Although silicosis has been known for centuries, the industrialization of mining has led to an increase in silicosis cases. Pneumatic drilling in mines and less commonly, mining using explosives, would raise rock dust. In the United States, a 1930 epidemic of silicosis due to the construction of the Hawk's Nest Tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia caused the death of at least 400 workers. Other accounts place the mortality figure at well over 1000 workers, primarily African American transient workers from the southern United States [13]. Workers who became ill were fired and left the region, making an exact mortality account difficult [14]. The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster is known as "America's worst industrial disaster [15]. The prevalence of silicosis led some men to grow what is called a miner's mustache, in an attempt to intercept as much dust as possible.

Some have opined that cannabis contaminated with silica may cause silicosis in users[16][17], but there are no scientific data to support this.

Chronic simple silicosis has been reported to occur from environmental exposures to silica in regions with high silica soil content and frequent dust storms.[18]

Also, the mining establishment of Delamar Ghost Town, Nevada was ruined by a dry-mining process that produced a silicosis-causing dust. After hundreds of deaths from silicosis, the town was nicknamed The Widowmaker. The problem in those days was somewhat resolved with an addition of a nozzle to the drill which sprayed a mist of water, turning dust raised by drilling into mud, but this inhibited mining work.

Because of work-exposure to silica dust, silicosis is an occupational hazard to mining, sandblasting, quarry, ceramics and foundry workers, as well as grinders, stone cutters, refractory brick workers, tombstone workers, pottery workers, and others. Brief or casual exposure to low levels of crystalline silica dust are not felt to produce clinically significant lung disease.[19]

Protective measures such as respirators have brought a steady decline in death rates due to silicosis in Western countries. Unfortunately, this is not true of less developed countries where work conditions are poor and respiratory equipment is seldom used. For instance, life expectancy for silver miners in Potosí, Bolivia is around 40 years due to silicosis.

Recently, silicosis in Turkish denim sandblasters was detected as a new cause of silicosis due to recurring, poor working conditions.[20]

Silicosis is seen in horses associated with inhalation of dust from certain cristobalite-containing soils in California.

Social Realist artist Noel Counihan depicted men who worked in industrial mines in Australia in the '40s dying of Silicosis in his series 'the miners' (1947 linocuts).


Because chronic silicosis is slow to develop, signs and symptoms may not appear until years after exposure.[8] Signs and symptoms include:

  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath) exacerbated by exertion
  • Cough, often persistent and sometimes severe
  • Fatigue
  • Tachypnea (rapid breathing) which is often labored
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Chest pain
  • Fever
  • Gradual dark shallow rifts in nails eventually leading to cracks as protein fibers within nail beds are destroyed.

In advanced cases, the following may also occur:

Patients with silicosis are particularly susceptible to tuberculosis (TB) infection—known as silicotuberculosis. The reason for the increased risk—10-30 fold increased incidence—is not well understood. It is thought that silica damages pulmonary macrophages, inhibiting their ability to kill mycobacteria. Even workers with prolonged silica exposure, but without silicosis, are at an increased risk (3-10 fold) for TB.[21]

Pulmonary complications of silicosis also include Chronic Bronchitis and airflow limitation (indistinguishable from that caused by smoking), non-tuberculous Mycobacterium infection, fungal lung infection, compensatory emphysema, and pneumothorax. There are some data revealing an association between silicosis and certain autoimmune diseases, including nephritis, Scleroderma, and Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, especially in acute or accelerated silicosis.

In 1996, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reviewed the medical data and classified crystalline silica as "carcinogenic to humans." The risk was best seen in cases with underlying silicosis, with relative risks for lung cancer of 2-4. Numerous subsequent studies have been published confirming this risk. In 2006, Pelucchi et al. concluded, "The silicosis-cancer association is now established, in agreement with other studies and meta-analysis."[22]


Classification of silicosis is made according to the disease's severity (including radiographic pattern), onset, and rapidity of progression.[23] These include:

  • Chronic simple silicosis

Usually resulting from long-term exposure (10 years or more) of exposure to relatively low concentrations of silica dust and usually appearing 10-30 years after first exposure.[24] This is the most common type of silicosis. Patients with this type of silicosis, especially early on, may not have obvious signs or symptoms of disease, but abnormalities may be detected by x-ray. Chronic cough and exertional dyspnea are common findings. Radiographically, chronic simple silicosis reveals a profusion of small (<10 mm in diameter) opacities, typically rounded, and predominating in the upper lung zones.

  • Accelerated silicosis

Silicosis that develops 5–10 years after first exposure to higher concentrations of silica dust. Symptoms and x-ray findings are similar to chronic simple silicosis, but occur earlier and tend to progress more rapidly. Patients with accelerated silicosis are at greater risk for complicated disease, including progressive massive fibrosis (PMF).

  • Complicated silicosis

Silicosis can become "complicated" by the development of severe scarring (progressive massive fibrosis,or also known as conglomerate silicosis), where the small nodules gradually become confluent, reaching a size of 1 cm or greater. PMF is associated with more severe symptoms and respiratory impairment than simple disease. Silicosis can also be complicated by other lung disease, such as tuberculosis, non-tuberculous mycobacterial infection, and fungal infection, certain autoimmune diseases, and lung cancer. Complicated silicosis is more common with accelerated silicosis than with the chronic variety.

  • Acute silicosis

Silicosis that develops a few weeks to 5 years after exposure to high concentrations of respirable silica dust. This is also known as silicoproteinosis. Symptoms of acute silicosis include more rapid onset of severe disabling shortness of breath, cough, weakness, and weight loss, often leading to death. The x-ray usually reveals a diffuse alveolar filling with air bronchograms, described as a ground-glass appearance, and similar to pneumonia, pulmonary edema, alveolar hemorrhage, and alveolar cell lung cancer.


There are three key elements to the diagnosis of silicosis. First, the patient history should reveal exposure to sufficient silica dust to cause this illness. Second, chest imaging (usually chest x-ray) that reveals findings consistent with silicosis. Third, there are no underlying illnesses that are more likely to be causing the abnormalities. Physical examination is usually unremarkable unless there is complicated disease. Also, the examination findings are no specific for silicosis. Pulmonary function testing may reveal airflow limitation, restrictive defects, reduced diffusion capacity, mixed defects, or may be normal (especially without complicated disease). Most cases of silicosis do not require tissue biopsy for diagnosis, but this may be necessary in some cases, primarily to exclude other conditions.

For uncomplicated silicosis, chest x-ray will confirm the presence of small (< 10 mm) nodules in the lungs, especially in the upper lung zones. Using the ILO classification system, these are of profusion 1/0 or greater and shape/size "p", "q", or "r". Lung zone involvement and profusion increases with disease progression. In advanced cases of silicosis, large opacity (> 1cm) occurs from coalescence of small opacities, particularly in the upper lung zones. With retraction of the lung tissue, there is compensatory emphysema. Enlargement of the hilum is common with chronic and accelerated silicosis. In about 5-10% of cases, the nodes will calcify circumferentially, producing so-called "eggshell" calcification. This finding is not pathognomonic (diagnostic) of silicosis. In some cases, the pulmonary nodules may also become calcified.

A computed tomography or CT scan can also provide a mode detailed analysis of the lungs, and can reveal cavitation due to concomitant mycobacterial infection.


Silicosis is an irreversible condition with no cure.[6] Treatment options currently focus on alleviating the symptoms and preventing complications. These include:

Experimental treatments include:


The best way to prevent silicosis is to identify work-place activities that produce respirable crystalline silica dust and then to eliminate or control the dust ("primary prevention"). Water spray is often used where dust emanates. Dust can also be controlled through dry air filtering.

Following observations on industry workers in Lucknow (India), experiments on rats found that jaggery (a traditional sugar) had a preventive action against silicosis[26].

See also

External links


  1. ^ Rosen G: The History of Miners' Diseases: A Medical and Social Interpretation. New York, Schuman, 1943, pp.459-476.
  2. ^ Craighead JE et al. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Diseases Associated with Exposure to Silica and Nonfibrous Silicate Minerals. Arch Pathol Lab Med 1988;112:673-720.
  3. ^ Crystalline Silica Primer, US Dept of the Interior and US Bureau of Mines, 1992.
  4. ^ Cassel SL, Eisenbarth SC, Iyer SS, et al. (June 2008). "The Nalp3 inflammasome is essential for the development of silicosis". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 105: 9035. doi:10.1073/pnas.0803933105. PMID 18577586. 
  5. ^ Craighead JE et al. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Diseases Associated with Exposure to Silica and Nonfibrous Silicate Minerals. Arch Pathol Lab Med 1988;112:673-720.
  6. ^ a b Wagner, GR (May 1997). "Asbestosis and silicosis". Lancet 349 (9061): 1311–1315. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(96)07336-9. PMID 9142077. 
  7. ^ Steenland K, Goldsmith DF (November 1995). Silica exposure and autoimmune diseases. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Cincinnati, OH 45226, USA. Retrieved 2007-05-29. 
  8. ^ a b c "Silicosis Fact Sheet". World Health Organization. May 2000. Retrieved 2007-05-29. 
  9. ^ "Safety and Health Topics Silica, Crystalline". Occupational Safety and Health Administration. March 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-29. 
  10. ^ Worker Health Chartbook 2004 - Fatal and Nonfatal Injuries, and Selected Illnesses - Respiratory Diseases - Pneumoconioses - Silicosis - NIOSH
  11. ^ Worker Health Chartbook 2004 - Fig2-192
  12. ^ a b Worker Health Chartbook 2004 - Fig2-190
  13. ^ "The Hawks Nest Tunnel," Patricia Spangler, 2008
  14. ^
  15. ^ “The Hawk’s Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster," Dr. Martin Cherniack 1986
  16. ^ Europe Flooded with Contaminated Cannabis
  17. ^ Cannabis contamination in the UK
  18. ^ Norboo T, Angchuk P, et al. Silicosis in a Himalayan Village Population: Role of Environmental Dust. Thorax 1991;46:341-343.
  19. ^ Beckett W, Abraham J, Becklake M, et al. American Thoracic Society Official Statement. Adverse Effects of Crystalline Silica Exposure. Am J Resp Crit Care Med, 1997;155:761-765.
  20. ^ Denim sandblasters contract fatal silicosis in illegal workshops
  21. ^ Cowie RL. The Epidemiology of Tuberculosis in Gold Miners with Silicosis. Am J Resp Crit Care Med, 1994;150:1460-1462.
  22. ^ Pelucchi C, Pira E, Piolatto G, et al. Occupational Silica Exposure and Lung Cancer Risk: a Review of Epidemiological Studies 1996-2005. Annals Onc 2006;17:1039-1050.
  23. ^ NIOSH Hazard Review. Health Effects of Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica. DHHS 2002-129. pp. 23.
  24. ^ Weisman DN and Banks DE. Silicosis. In: Interstitial Lung Disease. 4th ed. London: BC Decker Inc. 2003, pp391.
  25. ^ Chao, D.H. ; Ma, J.Y.C. ; Malanga, C.J. ; Banks, D.E. ; Hubbs, A.F. ; Rojanasakul, Y. ; Castranova, V. ; Ma, J.K.H (July 1996). Multiple emulsion-mediated enhancement of the therapeutic effect of tetrandine against silicosis. West Virginia University School of Pharmacy. "Previously it was shown that the action of tetrandrine is attributed to its ability to inhibit the release of reactive oxygen metabolites and inflammatory cytokines by alveolar macrophages, and that targeted delivery of tetrandrine to alveolar macrophages using a multiple emulsion system minimizes drug toxicity, maintains the drug's pharmacological activity, and enhances tetrandrine distribution in the lungs while reducing systemic drug distribution. This study provides in vivo evidence of emulsion-mediated enhancement of drug action in the lungs against silica-induced lung injury using a rat model.". 
  26. ^ Sahu, Anand P.; Saxena, Ashok K. (October 1994). "Enhanced Translocation of Particles from Lungs by Jaggery". Environmental Health Perspectives 102 (S5): 211–214. doi:10.2307/3432088. PMID 7882934. Retrieved 2007-05-20. 

On an off topic note, Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis was an unofficial scientific name created in 1935 by The National Puzzler's League.

Simple English

Silicosis is a disease that is caused by small particles of silica (glass) getting trapped in the lungs. When people have Silicosis, the changes in their body often are cyanosis (when skin goes a blueish color), a fever, when the body gets hotter or being not able to breathe properly. Sometimes doctors do not realize that someone has Silicosis, and think that they have other illnesses like Pneumonia, Tuberculosis or fluid in the lungs.

History of Silicosis

It was first noticed in 1705 by Bernardino Ramazzini (an Italian doctor). He saw something that looked like sand in the lungs of stonecutters. The name Silicosis is from Visconti in 1870. The name comes from the Latin silex which means flint.

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