Occupational exposure to crystalline silica and autoimmune disease

Environ Health Perspect. 1999 Oct;107 Suppl 5(Suppl 5):793-802. doi: 10.1289/ehp.99107s5793.


Occupational exposure to silica dust has been examined as a possible risk factor with respect to several systemic autoimmune diseases, including scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and some of the small vessel vasculitidies with renal involvement (e.g., Wegener granulomatosis). Crystalline silica, or quartz, is an abundant mineral found in sand, rock, and soil. High-level exposure to respirable silica dust can cause chronic inflammation and fibrosis in the lung and other organs. Studies of specific occupational groups with high-level silica exposure (e.g., miners) have shown increased rates of autoimmune diseases compared to the expected rates in the general population. However, some clinic- and population-based studies have not demonstrated an association between silica exposure and risk of autoimmune diseases. This lack of effect may be due to the limited statistical power of these studies to examine this association or because the lower- or moderate-level exposures that may be more common in the general population were not considered. Experimental studies demonstrate that silica can act as an adjuvant to nonspecifically enhance the immune response. This is one mechanism by which silica might be involved in the development of autoimmune diseases. Given that several different autoimmune diseases may be associated with silica dust exposure, silica dust may act to promote or accelerate disease development, requiring some other factor to break immune tolerance or initiate autoimmunity. The specific manifestation of this effect may depend on underlying differences in genetic susceptibility or other environmental exposures.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / etiology
  • Autoimmune Diseases / etiology*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology
  • Dust / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Kidney Diseases / etiology
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic / etiology
  • Occupational Diseases / etiology*
  • Occupational Diseases / immunology
  • Occupational Exposure
  • Risk Assessment
  • Scleroderma, Systemic / etiology
  • Silicon Dioxide / adverse effects*
  • Vascular Diseases / etiology


  • Dust
  • Silicon Dioxide