It has been established that coal pneumoconiosis and confluent silicosis are associated with emphysematous changes in the lungs. In the present study, we addressed the concept of emphysema in simple silicosis and asbestosis and in workers exposed to these minerals without the pneumoconiosis. The study was done on 207 consecutive workers evaluated for possible pneumoconiosis at Québec Workman Compensation Board, who had a radiographic reading of pneumoconiosis in the category 0 or 1 of the ILO scale, and in 5 control subjects. Emphysema was detected, typed, and graded on high-resolution CT scans by three independent experienced readers. Age, work experience and industry, smoking habits, and pulmonary function test results were analyzed for possible associations. The subjects were 59 +/- 1 years of age and had mineral dust exposure averaging 26 +/- 1 years; 31 were lifetime nonsmokers and the others were either ex- or current smokers. Ninety-six workers were from primary and 111 from secondary industries and did not differ in any parameter. The CT scan readings for emphysema yielded a 63% complete agreement. In lifetime non-smokers, emphysema was seen in 1 of 20 subjects without pneumoconiosis but in 8 of 11 patients with pneumoconioses. In smokers without pneumoconioses, emphysema was present in 55% of patients with silica exposure, but 29% of patients with asbestos exposure but comparable smoking (p = 0.04). Emphysema type was equally distributed among the groups except for more paracicatricial type in confluent silicosis. Regression analyses documented that age, smoking, exposure type, and presence of pneumoconiosis were significant contribution factors. In the workers without pneumoconiosis, age, smoking, and exposure type (silica) were significant. Emphysema related best with FEV1/FVC ratio, MMEF, and DCO reductions. The prevalence of abnormality of FEV1/FVC ratio was two to five times normal and that of reduced DCO two times normal. We conclude that, in our population, there was a significant excess of CT scan emphysema, associated with lung dysfunction, in those with pneumoconioses and in smokers with silica exposure. In the absence of smoking, it took a patient with pneumoconiosis to have emphysema. These changes contributed to the lung function impairment of these subjects with ILO category 0 or 1 pneumoconioses.