Background: The continuing uncertainty about the silica-systemic sclerosis relationship led to the investigation of its role as a disease determinant in a large population-based study of systemic sclerosis.
Aims: To compare the frequency, socioeconomic and educational status, age-specific prevalence and duration of occupational silica exposure in males with and without systemic sclerosis. To assess the temporal relationship between exposure and disease onset. To estimate disease latency. To compare disease characteristics between silica-exposed and non-silica-exposed male cases.
Methods: The study was case-control in design. The exposure variable was occupational silica exposure as assessed by an occupational health officer blinded to case/control status and the outcome variable was systemic sclerosis. The employed instrument comprised either a standardised telephone questionnaire (interviewed cases and controls) or medical records (deceased or living-status-unknown cases).
Results: Sixty of 160 cases (37.5%) and 11 of 83 (13.3%) controls had occupational silica exposure (OR=3.93; 1.84-8.54). Comparison of data between 64 interviewed cases and all controls demonstrated initial occupational silica exposure occurring before age 40, comparable educational status but significantly different cumulative socioeconomic status with cases being over-represented in semi-skilled and unskilled occupations. Cross-sectional 'current' occupational data underestimated cumulative silica exposure by more than 50%. Silica exposure uniformly preceded onset of second disease symptoms and disease diagnosis. In most, it also preceded onset of first disease symptoms. Disease latency approximated two decades. No disease features distinguished silica-associated systemic sclerosis from idiopathic systemic sclerosis. The duration of silica exposure in the interviewed silica-exposed cases did not significantly exceed that of silica-exposed controls.
Conclusions: Male systemic sclerosis displays socioeconomic dependence. Silica is a disease determinant in male systemic sclerosis, with disease features including a long latency and clinical characteristics indistinguishable from idiopathic disease. Cross-sectional 'current' occupational data underestimate cumulative occupational silica exposure.