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As the oldest industrial disease known to man, silicosis was identified hundreds of years ago as the disease caused by exposure to silica. In spite of their awareness of this disease, companies sold silica to use in sandblasting operations for decades without warning of the dangers of unprotected exposure to silica. Before it was identified and named in the 1930s, silicosis was known by a variety of names, such as dust consumption, grinder's asthma, grinder's rot, grit consumption, mason's disease, miner's asthma, miner's phthisis, potter's rot, rock tuberculosis, and stonemason's disease.

Year after year, both in developed and developing countries, overexposure to dust containing crystalline silica causes disease, temporary and permanent disabilities, and death. In certain places in the world, an age-old scenario is being repeated.

In the 16th century Agricola wrote of mines in the Carpathian mountains in Europe: "women are found to have married seven husbands, all of whom this terrible consumption (silico-tuberculosis) has carried off to a premature death". Only a few years ago certain villages in Northern Thailand were called "villages of widows" because of the large number of pestle-and-mortar-making workers who died early from silicosis. Here are some other examples of the global presence of silicosis:

  • During the period 1991 to 1995, China recorded more than 500,000 cases of silicosis, with around 6,000 new cases and more than 24,000 deaths occurring each year, mostly among older workers.
  • In Vietnam the cumulative number of diagnosed cases has now reached 9,000. They constitute 90% of all cases of occupationally compensated diseases. Some 18% of workers engaged in surface coal mining, quarrying, foundry and metallurgy have been found to have silicosis.
  • In India, a prevalence of 55% was found in one group of workers, many of them very young, engaged in the quarrying of shale sedimentary rock and subsequent work in small, poorly ventilated sheds. Studies on silicotic pencil workers in Central India demonstrated high mortality rates; the mean age at death was 35 years and the mean duration of the exposure was 12 years.
  • In Brazil, in the state of Minas Gerais alone more than 4,500 workers have been diagnosed with silicosis. In drought-affected regions in the northeast of the country, the hand-digging of wells through layers of rock with very high quartz content (97%), an activity that generates great quantities of dust in confined spaces, resulted in a prevalence of 26% of silicosis, with many cases of accelerated forms. The state of Rio de Janeiro banned sandblasting after 25% of shipyard workers were found to have silicosis.

The only way to stop history from repeating itself is through education and prevention. Visit our sections Treatment & Prevention and How to Protect Yourself.


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