Like factory workers in the 20th century who were exposed to asbestos without knowing the consequences, numerous workers of the 21st century have been working with a highly dangerous and potentially fatal element: silicon. Silicon, particularly glass-like crystalline silica, has recently been uncovered as one of the greatest unknown health dangers at job sites across America.
With that in mind, here are 14 astounding (and sometimes terrifying) facts about silica exposure.
#1: Silica Is Everywhere
Silicon is one of the most common elements in the universe and on our planet. In fact, 95% of the Earth's crust contains silica. It's most commonly found in quartz, but it's also a chief component of glass and other common materials.
#2: Silica Has Been a Part of Human History for Millenia
Silicon (silica's purest form) has gained fame in the last century for its conductive properties, which makes it a crucial part of our technological development as a species. Without silicon, the modern world may very well have never existed.
But silica has been a part of human technology for much longer than the last 60 years. Some of the earliest human tools also relied on silica—including spears, arrowheads, and picks.
#3: Silicon Crystallizes Similarly to Diamond
Crystalline silica has a similar crystal structure as diamond, which offers it some rigidity and strength. Silica's similarity to diamond makes sense when you consider that the base element for both—silicon and carbon—are adjacent to each other on the Periodic Table.
#4: Silica Can Be Found at Nearly Every Construction Site or Building
Today, silica is found in a wide variety of building materials:
The implications of silica's ubiquity turns sinister when you realize that crystalline silica is safe unless it is disturbed. That means any time that silica is blasted, cut, chipped, drilled, or ground, it exposes nearby workers to risk. It's why construction workers are the most likely people to suffer from silica exposure.
#5: Silica Is Linked to Multiple Life-Changing Illnesses
Silica has been linked to lung cancer, tuberculosis, COPD, kidney disease, and multiple forms of cancer. However, silica is most linked to silicosis, which is a lung disease caused exclusively by silica shards.
#6: Silicosis Is Irreversible
While silicosis is preventable, once someone has been exposed and developed silicosis, there's no going back. Silica dust essentially behaves like glass shards, creating micro cuts and tears in the lungs. Over time, those countless cuts create scar tissue and make it impossible for the lungs to expand efficiently. The end result is a permanent loss of lung function.
Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing further damage to the lungs. That's why it's vital for silicosis patients to get everything they need to pay for high-quality medical care as soon as possible after exposure.
It is important to seek medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms and have a history of silica dust exposure, especially if you work in an industry with a high risk of exposure.
#7: Silicosis Exposure Isn't Immediately Obvious
Like mesothelioma, the damage done by silicosis isn't immediately apparent. Sometimes, a worker might not even realize they're ill until a decade after their first exposure. In some cases, low levels of exposure over a long period can cause silicosis, while other silicosis cases can be triggered by a high level of exposure in a handful of incidents.
That's why any level of exposure needs to be taken seriously.
#8: One of the Worst Work Disasters in U.S. History Involved Silica Exposure
In the 1930s, the Hawk's Nest Tunnel disaster led to a staggering loss of life over the course of several months and years. The trouble began in 1930, when workers started digging a 3-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain in West Virginia for a civil engineering project.
As a civil project, even the most basic safety precautions went ignored: workers spent hours in confined spaces, had poor ventilation, limited access to breathing protection, all covered in a fine white dust.
What some workers would find out (far too late) is that Gauley Mountain was almost exclusively made of crystalline silica. Before we knew what it was, silicosis claimed 764 workers who'd dug through Gauley Mountain—a 30% fatality rate.
#9: Millions of Workers Are Exposed to Silica Every Year
With how common silica is and how many workers handle materials that release silica dust, it shouldn't be surprising that millions of workers are exposed to silica dust every year. Still, you would be forgiven for being shocked. Silica may be responsible for more lung disease and loss of life than any other workplace hazard.
However, some might read that and wonder why silicosis isn't more commonly known or why they don't know anyone who has personally suffered from silicosis. The answer is in our next fact:
#10: Only 2 States Are Tracking Silicosis Cases
Out of all 50 states and countless construction sites, only New Jersey and Michigan track silicosis diagnoses. Given the rate of exposure and how easily silicosis can be mistaken for other lung diseases, it's likely that there are numerous silicosis cases nationwide that haven't been reported.
It's up to workers and their families to make their stories heard. The fact is, companies know that construction work is dangerous, that common building materials contain serious health hazards. The only way to make sure sick workers get the medical care they need and future workers are adequately protected is to hold those companies accountable in public.
#11: Silica Dust Exposure Is a Problem In Multiple Industries
Silica dust is a worksite problem on the scale of asbestos exposure because it is a common substance in so many industrial careers.
Industries with high levels of silica exposure include:
- Oil and gas extraction
- Stone countertop
- Foundries and other manufacturing settings
For workers in construction, mining, or oil and gas extraction, the inherent risks of the jobsite are already high. The very least employers can do is provide necessary equipment to protect employees from a potentially devastating health hazard that could take decades off someone's life expectancy.
#12: Symptoms of Silica Dust Exposure Dramatically Lower Quality of Life
Silicosis is a chronic lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust over a prolonged period of time. Symptoms of silicosis may not appear until many years after the initial exposure, and the severity of symptoms can vary depending on the amount of silica dust inhaled and the duration of exposure. Due to the nature of the disease, once symptoms appear, there's nothing a person can do to reverse the damage.
The most common symptoms of silicosis include:
- Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity
- Chronic coughing, often with phlegm
- Chest pain
- Fatigue and weakness
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
In some cases, silicosis can lead to complications such as tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer. Silicosis can also increase the risk of other respiratory illnesses and infections.
#13: Almost Every Job on a Construction Site Encounters Silica Dust
Construction workers who work in areas with poor ventilation or who do not wear proper respiratory protection are at a higher risk of inhaling silica dust. The risk of silica dust exposure can be increased if the work is performed in a confined space, such as inside a building or tunnel.
Construction workers can be exposed to silica dust in a number of ways, including:
- Cutting, grinding, or drilling materials that contain silica, such as concrete, stone, brick, or tile.
- Sandblasting surfaces to remove paint or rust, which can create clouds of silica dust.
- Sweeping or cleaning up debris and dust from construction sites that contain silica-containing materials.
- Using power tools that generate silica dust, such as jackhammers or handheld grinders.
- Working in close proximity to others who are generating silica dust.
It is important for construction workers to receive training on the hazards of silica dust exposure and to take measures to protect themselves, such as wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and using tools that minimize the creation of silica dust.
#14: PPE for Silica Dust Is Fairly Inexpensive for Employers
Personal protective equipment (PPE) can help prevent silica dust exposure for workers who are at risk of inhaling silica dust in the workplace. The type of PPE that is needed depends on the nature of the work and the level of exposure, but some common examples of PPE that can be used to prevent silica dust exposure include:
Respirators: Workers who are exposed to high levels of silica dust should wear an N95 respirator or higher. Respirators should fit properly and be worn consistently throughout the workday. Employers should provide respirators and training on how to use them.
Eye protection: Safety goggles or glasses with side shields can help prevent silica dust from getting into workers' eyes.
Protective clothing: Workers should wear long-sleeved shirts and pants made of materials that do not generate dust, such as cotton. Clothing should be washed regularly to remove silica dust.
Gloves: Gloves made of nonporous materials can help prevent silica dust from getting on workers' hands.
It is important to note that PPE alone cannot prevent silica dust exposure. Employers should implement engineering controls, such as ventilation systems or dust suppression methods, to reduce the amount of silica dust in the workplace. They should also provide training on the hazards of silica dust exposure and how to prevent it, and monitor workers for signs of exposure.
Without such measures, silicosis will become the mesothelioma of the 21st century.