GP Alice Fitzgibbon focuses on silica and asbestos

GP Alice Fitzgibbon focuses on silica and asbestos

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Following last month’s article on general workplace related lung disease, GP Alice Fitzgibbon focuses on conditions related to two different dangerous particles – silica and asbestos. 

Lung disease caused by silica particles is called silicosis. Silicosis is caused by breathing in tiny particles of silica – a mineral found in sand, concrete, rocks and glass. Silica is used to make common building materials – it is found in kitchen tops, bathrooms, bricks, tiles and some plastics. When silica is cut, drilled or ground, tiny particles can enter the air and potentially be inhaled into the lungs. If silica dust particles enter the lungs, it can cause swelling and inflammation.

Over time the lung tissue then becomes hardened and scarred.  Scarred lung tissue (called fibrosis) means the lungs cannot do their job properly and it becomes difficult to breathe. The lung damage from silicosis happens over time; it may take years from the exposure. According to the Health and Safety Executive, more than 500 construction workers each year may die from silicosis.  

Some people will be at higher risk of silicosis, depending on their job. The following industries are known to have increased risks: 

  • stone masonry and stone cutting – especially with sandstone 
  • construction and demolition – as a result of exposure to concrete and paving materials 
  • worktop manufacturing and fitting 
  • pottery, ceramics and glass manufacturing 
  • mining and quarrying 
  • sand blasting

The symptoms of silicosis include cough, weight loss, shortness of breath, tiredness and chest pain. If it is suspected, the doctor will ask all about risks of exposure at work and organise further investigations. Tests might include a chest X-ray, CT scan or breathing tests (pulmonary function tests). 

Silicosis can be prevented by avoiding prolonged exposure to silica dust. In the UK, all workplaces must comply with The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, which sets a workplace exposure limit for silica. Employers are responsible for:  

  • warning employees about potential health risks  
  • making sure employees are aware of the correct procedures to reduce the risk of exposure to silica dust 
  • supplying the necessary protective equipment eg. masks. 

There is no specific treatment for silicosis and it may worsen with time. This is why it is so important to prevent it in the first place. Wearing the appropriate face masks for high-risk activities is essential.  

Next, let’s talk about asbestos. Nowadays, use of asbestos as a building material is illegal, but before the year 2000 it was used in new and refurbished buildings. Asbestos containing materials (ACMs) may make up the internal fabric of some older buildings so it might not be immediately obvious that it is present.  

Workers most likely to come into contact with ACMs are those in the construction, maintenance, refurbishment and related trades. When ACMs are damaged or disturbed they can release dangerous fibres which, if breathed in, can cause serious diseases – mesothelioma (cancer of the lung lining), lung cancer and asbestosis (scarring of the lung tissue). Around 5,000 people in Great Britain die every year from asbestos-related diseases as a result of past exposure. This makes asbestos the single greatest cause of work-related deaths. 

Diseases related to asbestos may take 15-60 years to develop. Even exposure to a small amount may cause cancer years later. These conditions are incurable and often fatal. This is why any worker (including the self-employed) who is liable to disturb asbestos during their work must receive the correct level of information, instruction and training so they can work safely and minimise risks to others.  

The signs and symptoms of asbestos related disease are cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, swollen fingertips (finger clubbing) and chest pain. Any symptoms like this need to be investigated with Chest X-rays, a CT scan and breathing tests for lung function.  

Being diagnosed with an occupational lung disease may mean you are entitled to compensation. It may be worth looking at the following information online if this applies to you:

If you are concerned about your workplace and potential exposures, then ensure you speak to your employer. It is their responsibility to ensure the correct safety measures are in place, and your responsibility to use them!

For further information on Silicosis from the NHS visit Silicosis – NHS (

For further information Asbestos containing materials (ACMs) from the HSE visit Common materials that may contain asbestos (

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