Silicosis is an interstitial lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, a common mineral found in many types of rock and soil. Over time, exposure to silica particles causes permanent lung scarring, called pulmonary fibrosis.

Key Facts

  • Approximately 2.3 million U.S. workers are exposed to silica in the workplace, including 2 million in construction and 300,000 in other industries.
  • When silica dust enters the lungs, it causes inflammation which over time leads to the development of scar tissue that makes breathing difficult.
  • Cigarette smoking adds to the lung damage caused by silicosis. Quitting smoking is an important part of managing the disease.
  • Complications from silicosis can include tuberculosis, lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, autoimmune disorders and kidney disease
  • There is no cure for silicosis, but treatment is available, and employers and workers can take steps to prevent it.

How It Affects Your Body?

When people breathe silica dust, they inhale tiny particles of the mineral silica. Over time, the silica dust particles can cause lung inflammation that leads to the formation of lung nodules and scarring in the lungs called pulmonary fibrosis. This is a progressive disease that normally takes 10–30 years after first exposure to develop. Over time, lung capacity decreases, and people with silicosis particularly those with Progressive Massive Fibrosis may need support with oxygen and other devices to help them breathe.

In some silicosis cases, this scarring can be so severe that it leads to a form of severe fibrosis, known as Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF). For these patients, extreme scarring and stiffening of the lung can make it difficult to breathe. Having silicosis also increases the risk of other health problems, including tuberculosis, lung cancer and chronic bronchitis.

Who Is at Risk?

Silica is the most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust. So, any occupation that involves chipping, cutting, drilling, or grinding soil, granite, slate, sandstone, or other natural material can cause exposure to silica dust. Some high-risk occupations are:

  • Construction work, including jackhammering, rock drilling and chipping, tunneling, sandblasting, asphalt milling and cutting concrete and brick
  • Stone countertop fabrication, especially using engineered stone
  • Foundry work
  • Ceramics manufacturing
  • Mining and hydraulic fracturing (fracking)

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: March 23, 2020

No upcoming events near you