What is Pneumoconiosis?
The word pneumoconiosis stems from the Greek language and means “dusty lungs.” Pneumoconiosis is an occupational lung disease caused by breathing in particles of mineral dust. It is a form of interstitial lung disease, where the irritant is inhaled and then settles in the lungs, causing inflammation. The inflammation then causes scarring to the tissue, which, unfortunately, is irreversible. This transformation takes a while to develop so someone may not show symptoms until after several years of inhaling minerals. Over time, this causes the lungs to harden and interferes with the lung’s normal exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. This puts a person at risk for heart failure, pulmonary tuberculosis and respiratory failure. Ultimately pneumoconiosis can lead to death.
There are three different types of pneumoconiosis: black lung, silicosis and siderosis. While there isn’t a cure available at this time, there are treatment options available to improve a person’s quality of life.
Occupations at the Highest Risk for Pneumoconiosis
- Miners (coal, metal, mineral)
- Ship building and repair
- Iron and steel foundries
- Construction workers
- Insulation workers
- Boiler makers
- Locomotive workers
- Manufacturing (pottery, glass, porcelain)
Black lung is an occupational lung disease caused by prolonged breathing of coal mine dust, also called miner’s lung and anthracosis. Coal miners and workers who process or ship coal are at risk, along with workers who manufacture synthetic graphite, lamp black or carbon black.
Silicosis is an occupational lung disease caused by breathing in silica, a mineral found in sand, rock or mineral ores like quartz. Quartz is the most common form of silica, and is often found in sand, sandstone, slate, some clays, granite and other ores. Workers at the highest risk to develop silicosis are: sandblasters, miners, tunnel builders, silica millers, quarry workers, foundry workers and those who make ceramics or glass.
Siderosis is an occupational lung disease caused by breathing in dust that contains iron particles. Siderosis is also known as welder’s lung or silver polisher’s lung. Siderosis will show up as abnormal on x-rays but rarely causes any symptoms.
The main cause of the black lung is prolonged breathing of coal mine dust. It is an occupational disease that unfortunately has affected several coal miners, and, according to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), it is estimated that roughly 1500 former coal miners die every year from black lung disease. The first legislations to protect coal miners were created in the 1950s, and have evolved ever since. Today the U.S. Department of Labor is the best point of contact for benefit information for current and former coal miners.
Silicosis is caused from prolonged exposure to silica dust. Silica is a naturally occurring crystal found in most rock beds. It is the main component of sand, so anyone works in mining, quarrying, tunneling, or works with certain metal ores could be at risk. Glass workers and sand-blasters are also at risk for silicosis. It is estimated that about two million U.S. workers are susceptible to develop silicosis. Intense exposure to silica can cause disease within one year, however, symptoms usually don’t present themselves for about 10-15 years. Cases of silicosis have reduced since Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) passed legislation requiring protective equipment for those working in these occupations. Other names for silicosis include: potter’s rot, miner’s phthisis, grinder’s asthma and other occupational-based names.
Siderosis is caused by breathing in dust or fumes containing iron ore particles. It is also referred to as the arc-welder’s disease because they are at the greatest risk to develop this disease. Other occupations that are at risk are miners, welders, cutters and solderers. Equipment such as a welder’s helmet does a great job in protecting workers from breathing in iron ore particles.
Pneumoconiosis causes mucus to build up in a person’s lungs. Mucus is produced to trap any dirt, debris or infection, making it easier to expel these foreign substances from your body. Healthy mucus is typically clear, whereas brown or black mucus is typically a sign of a problem or infection. Black mucus can be caused from dirt/dust, smoking, environmental pollutants and fungal infections. Often times, pneumoconiosis sufferers will see a darker colored mucus.
Mucus build up in the lungs causes a person suffering from pneumoconiosis to have an ongoing cough. As the disease develops, a person may begin to cough up blood.
Shortness of breath
Shortness of breath is defined as difficult breathing that does not directly relate to physical exertion. It may occur while exerting oneself or even while lying down. Shortness of breath often causes a sense of anxiety followed by a feeling of tightness or cramping in the chest wall. Many lung disease sufferers also experience panic or anxiety attacks.
Pulmonary hypertension is caused by high blood pressure in the arteries in the lungs which can cause failure of the right side of the heart. The high blood pressure in the lungs forces a person’s right heart chamber to work harder to pump more blood, which eventually leads to heart failure. Pulmonary hypertension is a rare condition.
Chest tightness / pain
Unhealthy lungs force the right side of the heart to work harder, which makes the heart weaker and, in serious cases, leads to heart failure.
Cyanosis is when a person’s skin or nails have a bluish tint as a result from low oxygen levels in the blood. In Caucasians this is quite distinctive, however in those with a darker skin tone it is important to look at the nails which are typically a better indicator.
(See occupations list above)
It is estimated that about 16% of coal miners develop pneumoconiosis from breathing in coal dust. Other factors that increase a person’s risk:
- Exposure to high levels of dust
- Exposure over a long period of time
How to Prevent Pneumoconiosis
- Do not smoke
- Wear a mask
- Wash the areas of your body that have come into contact with dust
- Safely remove dust from clothing
- Wash your hands and face before drinking or eating
- See your doctor for regular chest x-rays and physical exams
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