Silicosis is a respiratory disease resulting from exposure to silica, and is common in miners, who also suffer high TB levels.
Attorney Richard Spoor is preparing a class action lawsuit against leading gold mining firms on behalf of thousands of former miners who say they contracted silicosis through negligence of health and safety measures.
At their height in the 1980s, South Africa's gold mines employed 500 000 men, and some medical research suggests as many as one in two former gold miners has silicosis. A 2009 paper by researchers from Johannesburg's Witswatersrand University and University College, London, estimated that there were 288 000 cases of compensable silicosis in South Africa.
Tuberculosis is also a big problem in mines, with an estimated 760 000 new cases each year, according to figures published in 2010 by researchers at Oxford and Brown universities, the University of California, San Francisco and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Exposure to silica dust a risk
People who work in jobs where they are exposed to silica dust are at risk. In addition to mining, these jobs may include manufacturing of glass and abrasive materials; quarrying; stone cutting and construction.
Silicosis may take 15 to 20 years of exposure to the chemical before it appears. The most common type of the disease is simple chronic silicosis, which results from long-term exposure to silica dust. The dust causes swelling in the lungs and also affects the lymph nodes in the chest. The most common symptoms of the disease are shortness of breath, cough and weight loss.
No treatment for silicosis
These are very similar to some of the symptoms of tuberculosis (TB), which people with silicosis are at high risk of developing. A tuberculin skin test will be used to diagnose of TB, and a regime of drugs will be prescribed. People who are infected with HIV are more likely to develop tuberculosis.
There is no specific treatment for silicosis itself, but avoiding irritants and other infections is recommended.
(Reuters Health and Adele Hamilton, Health24 2012, sources Reuters Health, NIH and Health24)
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