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Am J Ind Med. 2005 Jul;48(1):16-23.

One agent, many diseases: exposure-response data and comparative risks of different outcomes following silica exposure.

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  • 1Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, 1518 Clifton Road, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA.



Evidence in recent years indicates that silica causes lung cancer, and probably renal disease, in addition to its well-known relationship to silicosis. There is also suggestive evidence that silica can cause arthritis and other auto-immune diseases. Silica has, therefore, joined a handful of other toxic exposures such as tobacco smoke, dioxin, and asbestos which cause multiple serious diseases.


The available exposure-response data for silica and silicosis, lung cancer, and renal disease are reviewed. We compare the corresponding excess risks (or absolute risks in the case of silicosis) of death or disease incidence by age 75 for these three diseases, subsequent to a lifetime (45 years) of exposure to silica at current US standard (0.1 mg/m(3) respirable crystalline silica).


The absolute risk of silicosis, as defined by small opacities greater than or equal to ILO classification 1/1 on an X-ray, ranges from 47% to 77% in three cohort studies with adequate follow-up after employment. The absolute risk of death from silicosis is estimated at 1.9% (0.8%-2.9%), based on a pooled analysis of six cohort studies. The excess risk of lung cancer death, assuming US male background rates, is 1.7% (0.2%-3.6%), based on a pooled analysis of ten cohort studies. The excess risk of end-stage renal disease (assuming male background rates) is 5.1% (2.2%-7.3%), based on a single cohort. The excess risk of death from renal disease is estimated to be 1.8% (0.8%-9.7%), based on a pooled analysis of three cohorts.


Keeping in mind that the usual OSHA acceptable excess risk of serious disease or death for workers is 0.1%, it is clear that the current standard is far from sufficiently protective of workers' health. Perhaps surprisingly, kidney disease emerges as perhaps a higher risk than either mortality from silicosis or lung cancer, although the data are based on fewer studies.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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