New Report Underscores Lung Cancer Risk From Silica

Written By:Elizabeth Mendes

A new report, published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, highlights the link between silica and lung cancer. The paper, authored by researchers from the American Cancer Society and Emory University, reviewed recent studies that “provide new information about silica and lung cancer.” They note that the findings underscore what more than 100 other studies conducted to date have shown – that there is “strong and consistent evidence that silica exposure increases lung cancer risk.”

“It often takes very large and complex studies to demonstrate the link between environmental and occupational exposures and cancer, but it is important that such studies be conducted because they provide information that protects workers and people in general from hazards,” says Elizabeth Ward, Ph.D., National Vice President of Intramural Research for the American Cancer Society and one of the authors of the report.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women in the United States. Tobacco smoke is the greatest risk factor, but exposure to substances like radon, asbestos, silica, and air pollution also increase the risk of developing this disease.

Silica is a mineral found in materials such as sand, stone, rock, concrete, and brick that is used in numerous industries including construction, mining, and manufacturing. Workers can be exposed to silica in a variety of ways. For example, they might inhale particles when cutting, sawing, or drilling a product that contains silica. About 2.2 million U.S. workers are exposed to silica particles each year, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  

The paper comes as OSHA pushes to further limit workers’ exposure to silica. Silica can also cause other health issues for the millions of workers who are or have been exposed to it, most notably silicosis, a disabling lung disease.

OSHA, in August of this year, proposed a new rule that would cut in half the amount of inhalable crystalline silica particles a worker can be exposed to in an 8-hour shift. OSHA estimates that doing so could “save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year.” Ward and her co-author, Kyle Steenland, Ph.D., of the Rollins School of Public Health, suggest in their paper that the new regulation is well-supported by scientific evidence.

Beyond what employers can do to limit workers’ exposure to silica, Ward and Steenland suggest in their paper that health providers play an active role in protecting workers from silica illnesses. They recommend that clinicians ask patients about their work history to determine if silica exposure has occurred, and if it has, “implement the early detection of silicosis and lung cancer.” Doctors should also encourage patients exposed to silica who also smoke to quit, the researchers say, as smoking and silica exposure together create a greater risk for lung cancer than either factor alone.

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