Silicosis Essay

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Silicosis be longs to the family of occupational diseases called the pneumoconioses, in which dust in the industrial environment enters the lungs and, over the course of years or decades, deprives the tissues of their functional capacity, saps immune protection, and in many cases kills the victim. In the case of silicosis, the disease agent is silica dust. Deprived of lung function, many victims are too debilitated to continue their jobs or perform daily tasks.

A variety of occupations have been associated with silicosis; any job that exposes workers to fine, powdered quartz crystals places them at risk. The World Health Organization reports that 24,000 Chinese workers died of silicosis each year between 1991 and 1995. Affected workers in one industry in India had an average age at death of 35. One-quarter of people involved in hand-digging wells in one Brazilian state developed silicosis. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that one million American workers are exposed to silica dust; one-tenth of those experience acute exposure through sandblasting, rock drilling, and mining. Fifty-nine thousand Americans actually develop silicosis and 300 die each year. Silicosis is incurable and irreversible, and lung condition typically continues to degenerate after exposure ceases.

This disease of the industrial environment has reflected and helped shape relationships among individual workers, technology, industry, medicine, and government in the United States for over 100 years. The growing mechanization of industrial processes in the late 19th century increased production but also the amount of dangerous dust generated in many occupations. One of the most scandalous incidents in the history of occupational disease was the cover-up by Union Carbide of the deaths of hundreds of African-American workers from acute silicosis while digging a tunnel at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in 1935. (The acute form of silicosis can develop in a matter of weeks.)

In the 1930s, thousands of families went to court to seek compensation for silicosis victimsjust when the Depression left them vulnerable to job loss and dependent on compensation as a means of income. By 1936, however, new laws shifted responsibility for determining compensation to disability review boards, which tended to deny many workers an award. Meanwhile, labor laws required the use of respirators in dusty occupations and limited the concentrations of dust permitted in the work environment.

Despite seemingly appropriate regulations silicosis remains a serious hazard in many of the older occupations and in some new and growing ones worldwide. In recent decades in the United States, regulators and industry have struggled over standards on environmental dust. In the 1970s the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) determined that neither respirators nor existing environmental standards were sufficient to protect workers from silicosis; growing numbers of sandblasters employed by industries in the Sunbelt, including many young Latinos, were developing the disease.

Industry groups blocked proposed new standards in the early 1980s, when the pro-businesses Ronald Reagan presidential administration weakened federal labor agencies. NIOSH was finally able to tighten standards in the late 1990s just as new cases among miners, and a possible link to cancer, were coming to light. In addition, the threat of employee tort actions and calls to ban some kinds of sandblasting are likely to affect industry and workers for the foreseeable future.


  1. Steven Kroll-Smith, Phil Brown, and Valerie Gunter, Illness and the Environment: A Reader in Contested Medicine (New York University Press, 2000);
  2. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “Preventing Silicosis and Deaths in Construction Workers,”;
  3. David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, Deadly Dust: Silicosis and the Politics of Occupational Disease in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton University Press, 1991);
  4. World Health Organization, “Silicosis,”

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