Three decades of silicosis: disease trends at autopsy in South African gold miners

Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Mar;118(3):421-6. doi: 10.1289/ehp.0900918.


Background: Eliminating silicosis is a priority of the International Labour Organization and the World Health Organization. Prevalence is particularly high in developing countries.

Objectives: We describe trends in silicosis among South African gold miners who had had an autopsy between 1975 and 2007 and quantify the contributions of age at autopsy and employment duration to these trends.

Methods: South African miners and ex-miners are eligible for autopsy examination for occupational lung disease, regardless of the clinical cause of death, and the families of deceased mine workers may receive compensation from the government of South Africa. Miners who died from external causes and who had been employed in the gold mines for > 1 year were stratified by population group because of differences in exposure, patterns of employment, and autopsy referral patterns. We extracted data from PATHAUT (Pathology Automation System) and used Stata 10 to estimate trends in relative proportions of silicosis that were standardized for age and employment duration.

Results: The crude proportion of silicosis for white miners was six times that of black miners in 1975. By 2007, it was 1.5 times higher for black miners. The proportion of miners with silicosis increased from 0.03 to 0.32 for black miners and from 0.18 to 0.22 for white miners. The increase can be explained by increasing age and employment duration for white miners. For black miners, it can be only partly explained by these two factors.

Conclusion: As miners continue to age and work for longer periods, the burden of silicosis will continue to rise. South Africa is committed to global efforts to eliminate silicosis by 2030. The autopsy database allows for disease surveillance, which is necessary to monitor the success of this initiative.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Autopsy
  • Black People
  • Gold*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mining*
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology
  • Occupational Diseases / etiology
  • Occupational Diseases / mortality
  • Occupational Diseases / pathology*
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Risk Factors
  • Silicon Dioxide / toxicity*
  • Silicosis / epidemiology
  • Silicosis / etiology
  • Silicosis / mortality
  • Silicosis / pathology*
  • South Africa / epidemiology
  • Time Factors
  • White People
  • Young Adult


  • Gold
  • Silicon Dioxide