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Health A-Z

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Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Pneumoconiosis is a lung condition that is caused by inhaling particles of mineral dust, usually while working in a high-risk, mineral-related industry. At first, irritating mineral dust can trigger lung inflammation, which causes areas of the lung to be temporarily damaged. Over time, these areas can progress to form tough, fibrous tissue deposits. This stage of pneumoconiosis is called fibrosis. Fibrosis stiffens the lungs and interferes with the lung's normal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

There are several different types of pneumoconiosis. In the United States, the most common types include:

  • Asbestosis Asbestos is the general name for a family of irritating fibrous minerals that are mined from underground deposits and used in the manufacture of home insulation, fireproof materials, tiles for floors and ceilings, automobile brake linings, and other products. Workers with the highest asbestos exposure include miners, construction workers, demolition workers, shipbuilders and auto mechanics who work with brakes. Asbestos exposure also can affect people who live or work in buildings where asbestos-containing building products are deteriorating. In most cases, signs of asbestosis do not develop for 20 or more years after a person is first exposed to asbestos dust.

  • Silicosis This form of pneumoconiosis affects people who work with silica, usually in the form of quartz that is found in sand, sandstone, slate, some clays, granite and other ores. Workers with the highest exposure to silica include sandblasters, miners, tunnel builders, silica millers, quarry workers, foundry workers and those who make ceramics or glass. Silicosis can cause progressive fibrosis in the lung with a significant decrease in lung function, especially in cigarette smokers.

  • Coal worker's pneumoconiosis This form of pneumoconiosis is caused by inhaling carbon particles from coal, graphite, lamp black or carbon black. It most often affects people who mine, process or ship coal; graphite miners; and workers who manufacture synthetic graphite, lamp black or carbon black. Like silicosis, coal worker's pneumoconiosis can cause significant fibrosis, primarily in miners who have worked for decades without protective equipment.

  • Talc pneumoconiosis This is caused by exposure to talc dust, usually during talc mining or milling. Talc pneumoconiosis also can lead to lung fibrosis.

  • Kaolin (china clay) pneumoconiosis This pneumoconiosis is caused by inhaling kaolin, an ingredient used in the manufacture of ceramics, paper, medicines, cosmetics and toothpaste. Workers who mine, mill or bag kaolin are at risk.

  • Siderosis of the lung This pneumoconiosis, also known as welder's lung or silver polisher's lung, is caused by inhaling iron particles. Although welder's lung often looks abnormal on a chest X-ray, it usually does not cause any symptoms.

  • Other pneumoconiosis Less often, pneumoconiosis can be caused by inhaling barium sulfate, tin oxide, compounds containing hard metal (cobalt and tungsten carbide) or other forms of mineral dust.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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