Pneumoconiosis: The risk of breathing in dust
Pneumoconiosis can happen when a person breathes in dust particles such as asbestos, coal dust, or silica. If these particles enter airways or air sacs in the lungs, they can cause inflammation as the body tries to fight them off.
The dust particles that cause pneumoconiosis are usually found in the workplace, so it is often called an occupational lung disease. While pneumoconiosis is not curable, there are a variety of ways to manage it.
What is pneumoconiosis?
Pneumoconiosis is often referred to as occupational lung disease.
Pneumoconiosis is any lung disease caused by dust particles that can damage the lungs. The type of disease varies according to the kind of dust inhaled, although symptoms are usually similar regardless of the cause.
Types of dust that may cause pneumoconiosis include:
- coal dust from drilling into rock when mining
- asbestos fibers, often from insulation or roofing
- cotton dust, usually from textile manufacturing
- silica, often from sand and rock at a foundry
- beryllium, a lightweight metal used in electronics and aerospace industries
- aluminum oxide, cobalt, and talc
Different forms of the disease include coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP), also known as black lung disease, and byssinosis, also known as brown lung disease, caused by cotton fibers. Pneumoconiosis caused by asbestos is called asbestosis.
If a person breathes in harmful dust particles, they can be deposited in the lungs. The body's immune system will send cells to surround the dust particles to try to stop them causing damage. This causes inflammation and can sometimes lead to scar tissue, known as fibrosis.
If inflammation or fibrosis are severe, they may cause symptoms of pneumoconiosis.
Pneumoconiosis can take a long time to develop, as dust can build up slowly or take many years to cause a reaction in the lungs. This means that symptoms may not appear immediately after dust particles have entered the lungs.
A person with pneumoconiosis may no longer work in an environment with dust that has caused the disease.
The key symptoms of pneumoconiosis are:
- difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath
- a cough, which may produce phlegm
- tightness in the chest
These symptoms can be similar to those of a cold or chest infection. However, symptoms tend to persist and could indicate pneumoconiosis if someone experiencing them has worked in an environment with harmful dust particles.
If scarring in the lungs is severe, oxygen may be less able to make it into the bloodstream. Low levels of oxygen in the blood can cause problems for other organs in the body, such as the heart and brain.
Coal dust from mining may cause pneumoconiosis.
There are clear risk factors for pneumoconiosis and a range of jobs that are more likely to bring people into contact with harmful dust.
Some examples of occupations that may bring workers into contact with dust particles that cause pneumoconiosis include:
- plumbers, roofers, and builders who work with asbestos
- coal miners
- textile workers
Working with dust particles does not mean that a person will develop pneumoconiosis. Many steps can be taken to protect workers.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) is a law that instructs employers to make sure that their workplace is "free from recognized hazards," which includes exposure to harmful dust.
Steps that can be taken to help prevent pneumoconiosis in the workplace include:
- keeping levels of dust down
- ventilating a workspace properly
- providing regular medical examinations
- making sure workers wear a face mask and protective clothing
- washing hands and face before eating or drinking
Being exposed to high levels of dust or working in unsafe conditions for a long time will increase the risk of pneumoconiosis. Smoking can also make someone more vulnerable to developing the condition.
Many employers offer a routine check for lung diseases, such as a chest X-ray or breathing test, if employees are exposed to harmful dust in the workplace.
If a person has symptoms of pneumoconiosis, a doctor will complete a physical examination and ask about medical history, including whether the person has been exposed to dust particles. A more detailed examination may be carried out by a doctor specializing in the lungs, known as a pulmonologist.
A chest X-ray or CT scan can reveal inflammation, excess fluid, or scarring in the lungs. A test may also be done to check how much oxygen is reaching the blood from the lungs. Sometimes a biopsy may be needed to rule out other diseases.
Living with pneumoconiosis
Quitting smoking may be of benefit to those with pneumoconiosis.
There is currently no cure for pneumoconiosis, so treatment aims to control symptoms and prevent the disease from getting worse.
It is important to take care of the heart and lungs by maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising regularly. A pulmonary rehabilitation program can offer advice and exercise classes to improve lung function.
Having an annual flu shot, using an inhaler, and oxygen therapy can help the lungs stay healthy and function as well as possible. Regular checkups can help manage the disease and spot any progression of pneumoconiosis.
Having difficulty breathing can make a person feel stressed and anxious, so mental health support may be helpful for those dealing with the effects of pneumoconiosis. The American Lung Association has set up "Better Breathers" clubs that can offer friendly support and advice.
Pneumoconiosis can have complications, including respiratory failure, tuberculosis (TB), and heart failure. Research suggests that people with pneumoconiosis may also be at higher risk of a stroke, so a person should know the symptoms of a stroke and ask a medical professional if they have concerns.
As there is no cure for pneumoconiosis, prevention is important. Ensuring that a workplace has proper health and safety measures in place, wearing protective clothing, and frequent hand-washing can all help.