Every breath you take: A brief history of silica and silicosis

Take a deep breath. It’s something we all take for granted from the day we are born. When resting, adults breathe 12-20 times a minute. In fact, it is estimated that we take between 17,000-30,000 breaths per day and that the total length of airways in our lungs is 2,400 km…the equivalent of travelling between London and Turkey! Yet if you are working iEyeStrainn an environment where you are exposed to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) dust, every breath you take has the potential to cause silicosis. In this short post, Dr Karen McDonnell, our occupational safety and health policy adviser, explores the issues surrounding silica dust, and what you can do to protect your workers from potentially deadly exposure.

What is crystalline silica?

Crystalline silica is a basic component of soil, sand, granite, and many other minerals. Quartz is the most common form of crystalline silica (with cristobalite and tridymite the other two). All three forms may become respirable size particles when workers chip, cut, drill, or grind objects that contain crystalline silica – meaning they can be breathed in. This can have a devastating impact on health, potentially causing both cancer and silicosis.

What is silicosis?

When silica dust enters the lungs it causes the formation of scar tissue, thus reducing the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen. Acute silicosis can occur within just a few months of exposure, and symptoms can include severe disabling shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss, all of which often lead to death. There is no cure for silicosis.

Deadly dust

The impact of breathing in dust has been recognised since the mid 16th century when Agricola recorded lung problems in mine workers. Then in 1713 Dr. Bernardino Ramazzini, who is considered the founder of occupational medicine, noted that stone cutters presented with asthmatic symptoms and when undertaking post mortem inspections of lung tissue found deep seated sand-like substances.

Jump forward 300 years and the picture really isn’t that much different. According to the HSE’s occupational cancer burden research, the number of deaths from lung cancer associated with exposure to RCS shows there are around 600 deaths per year in the UK with 450 of these occurring from exposures in the construction sector. Clearly, something has to change.caution

No time to lose

The Global Health and Safety Network led by IOSH is working together to meet this challenge. In my role as IOSH President, the initiative I am most proud of is the No Time to Lose campaign. Partnership working is the key to success in any language, RoSPA’s NOSHC has collated a A-Z of campaigns linked to improving occupational health to support organisations in taking key messages forward. However for me there is always the opportunity to take time and reflect on the hierarchy of control measures we all learn ‘at someone’s knee’ as we first embark on health and safety related careers which can in this instance reap rewards. Just as accidents don’t need to happen, workers don’t need to inhale RCS. In other words, we need to get back to basics, to identify those activities that produce RCS and then eliminate or control it.

The development pathway from Safety to Occupational Health, Occupational Hygiene and Wellbeing may well be a long and winding road, but as practitioners we ‘get’ the hierarchy of control measures. If we all took time out to consider RCS and whether our existing control measures are working to design capacity ensured routine maintenance and that RCS was under control, we would each contribute to reducing the numbers of people dying from silicosis and start re-writing history!

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