Pneumoconiosis is an umbrella term used in the medical community to refer to any lung disease that is caused by exposure to dust. Generally, diseases under this umbrella are occupational lung diseases. Some of the lung diseases that fall in the category of pneumoconiosis are:
All of these diseases develop as a result of workers breathing in mineral dust. The minerals most often associated with pneumoconiosis are crystalline silica, asbestos, and coal dusts.
What is Pneumoconiosis?
When certain materials are broken down, grinded, sanded, or cut into, they release particles of dust. This dust can then be inhaled by workers who are not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). The tiny particles of dust enter the lungs and become lodged in the soft tissue. This causes inflammation, and over time, symptoms will start to develop.
When someone has pneumoconiosis, the dust particles may be lodged in the bronchial tubes or alveoli (the air sacs) deep in the lungs. The body tries to fight off the invading particles by sending cells to the affected area, which causes inflammation. Severe inflammation can result in scar tissue forming (fibrosis).
Depending on how deeply the dust particles have traveled and the type of dust, pneumoconiosis can be very serious. Some people with one of these diseases exhibit no symptoms, while others exhibit symptoms months or even years after exposure to dust.
Symptoms of Pneumoconiosis
Like silicosis and asbestosis, someone with a diagnosis of pneumoconiosis may experience a range of symptoms. Symptoms often start relatively mild, but these are progressive diseases that can cause significant damage to the lungs. Most often, the symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Being easily “winded”
- Low blood oxygen
Over time, these symptoms may become severe, and can lead to additional health problems. Low blood oxygen levels in particular is dangerous because the body needs well oxygenated blood to keep vital organs healthy.
Who is At Risk?
People who are most at risk for developing pneumoconiosis are workers in occupations involving exposure to mineral dust. Consider the following occupations most at risk of exposure to asbestos, crystalline silica, and coal dust:
- Textile manufacturers
- Coal miners
- Graphite workers
Anyone who works around mineral dust may be at risk for developing lung diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are around two million workers in the United States who are at risk of developing lung diseases like silicosis.
Can Pneumoconiosis be Prevented?
The lung diseases under the umbrella of pneumoconiosis are preventable. These diseases are incurable, which makes prevention all the more important. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set standards for occupational exposure to mineral dust, and recommends workers do the following:
- Wear appropriate PPE – Respirator, cover-all, and face mask
- Wash any part of the body that is exposed to dust with soap and water
- Avoid eating or drinking in areas where dust may be present in the air
- Avoid smoking
Similarly, employers can help prevent pneumoconiosis by doing the following:
- Conduct risk assessments of job sites
- Ensure proper ventilation
- Provide workers with PPE
- Train workers on the risks of exposure to mineral dust
- Follow OSHA guidelines and exposure limits
- Make sure that workers are provided with routine screening