Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and occupational exposure to silica

Rev Environ Health. 2007 Oct-Dec;22(4):255-72. doi: 10.1515/reveh.2007.22.4.255.


Prolonged exposure to high levels of silica has long been known to cause silicosis This paper evaluates the evidence for an increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in occupations and industries in which exposure to crystalline silica is the primary exposure, with a focus on the magnitude of risks and levels of exposure causing disabling health effects. The literature suggests consistently elevated risks of developing COPD associated with silica exposure in several occupations, including the construction industry; tunneling; cement industry; brick manufacturing; pottery and ceramic work; silica sand, granite and diatomaceous earth industries; gold mining; and iron and steel founding, with risk estimates being high in some, even after taking into account the effect of confounders like smoking. Average dust levels vary from about 0.5 mg.m3 to over 10 mg.m3 and average silica levels from 0.04 to over 5 mg.m3, often well above occupational standards. Factors influencing the variation from industry to industry in risks associated with exposure to silica-containing dusts include (a) the presence of other minerals in the dust, particularly when associated with clay minerals; (b) the size of the particles and percentage of quartz; (c) the physicochemical characteristics, such as whether the dust is freshly fractured. Longitudinal studies suggest that loss of lung function occurs with exposure to silica dust at concentrations of between 0.1 and 0.2 mg.m3, and that the effect of cumulative silica dust exposure on airflow obstruction is independent of silicosis. Nevertheless, a disabling loss of lung function in the absence of silicosis would not occur until between 30 and 40 years exposure.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Dust
  • Humans
  • Inhalation Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Occupational Diseases / etiology*
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Particle Size
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / etiology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Silicon Dioxide / poisoning*
  • Silicosis / etiology
  • Spirometry


  • Dust
  • Silicon Dioxide