Two million workers in the US are at risk of crystalline silica exposure every year. People who work in abrasive blasting, foundry work, stone cutting, rock drilling, quarry work, and tunneling are among those at the highest risk of exposure. These high risk jobs employ more than 100,000 workers annually.
But what exactly is silica, and how dangerous is it? What effects can it have on people who are exposed to it?
What is Crystalline Silica?
Crystalline silica, commonly referred to simply as “silica,” is one of the main elements that makes up soil, sand, granite, and a number of other minerals. Quartz, critobalite, and tridymite are the three most common forms of silica. When workers cut, drill, chip, or grind objects containing silica, fragments small enough for the workers to inhale make break off. Inhaling silica particles can be fatal.
Crystalline Silica is officially classified as a human lung carcinogen, meaning it can cause cancer. Silica inhalation is known to cause silicosis, which is an incurable disease that can cause permanent disabilities or even death. Inhaling silica particles causes scar tissue to form within the lungs, which reduces the lungs’ ability to draw oxygen. People who have lung damage due to silicosis are at a greater risk for lung infections such as tuberculosis.
There are three types of silicosis:
Chronic silicosis is the most common type, and it usually occurs after a person is exposed to a low to moderate amount of respirable silica over 15-20 years. Individuals with chronic silicosis may require chest x-rays to identify lung damage, because symptoms may be much less obvious than in the other types.
Accelerated silicosis, as its name suggests, has a quicker onset than chronic silicosis, because it is a result of high exposures to respirable silica over 5-10 years. Individuals who suffer from accelerated silicosis experience severe shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss.
Sufferers of acute silicosis have been exposed to extremely high concentrations of respirable silica for as few as three months. Exposure to this much respirable silica for any time up to two years can result in acute silicosis. The onset of symptoms occurs even faster than those of accelerated silicosis due to the higher concentration of crystalline silica exposure. Individuals suffering from acute silicosis experience disabling shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss, which often leads to death.
Check back with us next time for more information about silica exposure.