Silicosis: The facts

An occupational disease resulting from long-term exposure to high levels of respirable crystalline silica

For many years, it has been known that prolonged inhalation of respirable crystalline silica dust may cause a specific type of lung damage called silicosis. In fact, silicosis is the world’s oldest known occupational disease.

Although silicosis has been recognised for centuries, our understanding of how it works and its links to lung cancer have become more well understood over the past two decades. A suspicion of lung cancer occurrence among workers exposed to RCS was first proposed in the 1960s. However, confirmation of a link between prolonged silica exposure and lung cancer was generally considered impossible until the 1980s.

In 1987, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluated RCS as a probable human carcinogen for the first time, and in 1997 concluded on the basis of literature review that inhaled respirable crystalline silica from occupational sources is carcinogenic to humans. In 2012, IARC confirmed its conclusions as: “Crystalline silica in the form of quartz or cristobalite dust is carcinogenic to humans”.

It is now accepted in medical science that prolonged and intense RCS exposure can cause lung cancer.

Limiting exposure to high levels of RCS prevents silicosis and lung cancer

Minimising the risks of silicosis in those working in industrial environments will also minimise or even eradicate the risk of lung cancer from RCS exposure. This view was validated by the European Scientific Committee for Exposure Limit Values (SCOEL), who in a 2003 report concluded that “preventing the onset of silicosis will also reduce the cancer risk.”

This understanding has helped legislators and regulators implement regulations to protect workers’ health, and the industries concerned to adopt measures to protect workers from the risks of RCS.

Find out more about what is being done to prevent silicosis in the workplace.

Guides and examples of good practices produced by the Commission, the Member States or the social partners, or other initiatives, such as the Social Dialogue ‘Agreement on Workers’ Health Protection Through the Good Handling and Use of Crystalline Silica and Products Containing it’ (NEPSI) are valuable and necessary instruments to complement regulatory measures and in particular to support the effective implementation of limit values. — EU Directive 2017/2398/EC

The NEPSI Agreement deserves praise for leading to lower levels of exposure through spreading Good Practices which employers have actively bought into. And it has helped to increase the knowledge of the health effects of RCS. Crucially, it has and still is complementing European legislation in the field of worker protection. Setting limit values through EU legislation is instrumental for protection of workers’ health. But it is the quality of implementation and enforcement on the ground […] that will determine whether lives are saved. That is where we see the true value of the bottom-up approach, which has driven the success of NEPSI. — EU Commissioner Marianne Thyssen.