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Silica Lawyers

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After oxygen, silica is the second most common element in the crust of the earth. It is a mineral compound which occurs naturally in sand and stone, most often in the form of quartz. Since the construction industry frequently makes use of these raw materials, silica is present in numerous building products, including brick, cement, and tile. When airborne, silica is a health hazard and inhaling it may cause severe pulmonary disease, as well as other serious illnesses.

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What Is Silica?

Silica, also known as silicon dioxide, is one of the most widespread mineral compounds on the planet, naturally found in sand, soil, and stone. It accounts for nearly 60% of the entire composition of the earth’s crust. There are two types of silica: crystalline and amorphous. While the former is by far the most common, being preponderantly exploited by the construction industry, the latter is slightly rarer, with the semiconductor and cosmetic industries as the primary consumers. Crystalline silica occurs most frequently in the form of quartz, followed by cristobalite and tridymite. Silica is also present in the human body. Our bones, tendons, liver, kidneys, as well as aorta, contain this mineral compound, which has the purpose of maintaining connective tissue.

When Is Silica Dangerous?

Considering the astounding prevalence of silica, it is safe to say that everyone has come in contact with it at least once. In fact, the majority of people handle silica on a daily basis, as this mineral compound is present in glass, which is made from sand. Similarly to asbestos, the use of silica dates back to ancient times, having been involved mainly in the manufacturing of glass objects. Nowadays, the range of applications is substantially wider, with industries such as pottery, construction, railroad, and jewelry employing silica on a regular basis. However, silica also bears a very unfortunate resemblance to asbestos – it is a known human carcinogen. While asbestos exposure is notorious for causing mesothelioma, the inhalation of silica dust in occupational settings can lead to silicosis, a debilitating pulmonary disease for which there is no cure.

Silica is dangerous only when it becomes airborne. Crystalline silica is generally believed to be more toxic than amorphous silica. Nevertheless, since the former often contaminates the latter, study results have been inconclusive in this regard. According to OSHA, over 2.3 million workers in the U.S. are regularly exposed to silica dust on the job, 90% of whom in the construction industry. Performing the following actions to silica-containing materials is bound to release hazardous dust in the air, which places employees who do not wear protective equipment at high risk for silicosis:

  • cutting
  • drilling
  • blasting
  • grinding
  • chipping
  • sawing
  • crushing

It is important to note that as long as silica-containing products are left undisturbed, they do not pose a threat to your health, as harmful particles cannot come off them.


What Diseases Can Silica Dust Cause?

The harmful effects of silica exposure on human health were first documented in 1700 by Dr. Bernardino Ramazzini, who observed symptoms of silicosis in stone cutters. Silicosis is the most common disease among people who underwent occupational silica exposure. Every year, there are between 3,600 and 7,300 new cases in the United States. The latency period of silicosis is different for each individual. Accordingly, the disease may develop within a few weeks to several decades after one breathes in silica dust.

In the early phase, silicosis produces damage to the air sacs of the lungs, which gradually gives way to fluid buildup (medically known as pleural effusion) and tissue scarring. Progressive massive fibrosis might also occur in severe cases, a condition which hinders breathing tremendously by causing extensive lung stiffening. Because silicosis reduces the amount of oxygen the body receives and affects lung capacity to a great extent, people suffering from this disease experience symptoms such as fatigue, weight loss, wheezing, a chronic cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and loss of appetite.

There are 3 types of silicosis, each developing at a different pace:

  • Chronic silicosis, which typically occurs as a consequence of 15-20 years of exposure to moderate concentrations of silica dust. Swelling gradually develops in the lungs, as well as in the chest lymph nodes. Initially asymptomatic, the disease causes increasingly distressing symptoms as it progresses, such as extreme shortness of breath, fatigue, and respiratory failure.
  • Accelerated silicosis. It ensues following 5-10 years of heavy silica dust inhalation. The individual experiences symptoms, which include fatigue and severe shortness of breath, sooner than in the case of chronic silicosis.
  • Acute silicosis, which develops within a few months to 2 years after exposure to extremely high concentrations of airborne silica. It has a more aggressive progress than accelerated silicosis, entailing very debilitating symptoms like disabling shortness of breath and often resulting in death.

Suffering from silicosis, regardless of type, increases the risk of developing a secondary lung disease at some point in the future, such as chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, and tuberculosis. Unfortunately, there is no cure for silicosis, but the disease can be effectively kept under control with the aid of medication and oxygen therapy. Due to the enforcement of better workplace regulations, the annual number of silicosis victims in the U.S. declined from 1,065 to 165 between 1968 and 2004. Nowadays, the illness is responsible for the death of approximately 100 Americans every year.

In addition to silicosis, exposure to airborne silica is also responsible for the following diseases:

  • lung cancer
  • kidney disease
  • COPD
  • tuberculosis
  • autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma, lupus, and vasculitis

What Are the Most Common Silica-Containing Products?

Because the construction industry is the primary employer of silica, the vast majority of products which contain it are building materials. Some of the most common silica-containing products in this category are:

  • cement
  • drywall
  • asphalt
  • clay and ceramic tiles
  • brick
  • grout
  • concrete
  • stone (limestone, granite, slate etc.)
  • sand
  • mortar
  • caulk
  • refractory castables
  • plaster
  • roof tiles
  • gunite/shotcrete
  • stucco
  • terrazzo
  • soil (top soil, fill dirt, soil with fly ash)
  • certain paints

Silica exposure from handling building materials primarily affects construction workers. The general population, however, comes in contact with silica primarily by using the following consumer products, which contain it:

  • art clays and glazes
  • pet litter
  • cosmetics
  • talcum powder
  • paint
  • cleansers
  • household abrasives

Who Is Most Likely to Develop a Disease as a Result of Silica Exposure?

As is the case of asbestos, there is no safe amount of silica dust. Silica is a carcinogenic agent whose hazardous nature has been recognized by multiple reputable health agencies worldwide. Nevertheless, the duration of exposure and the amount of airborne particles are once again factors which play a key role in estimating the risk of developing a disease. People who were in direct contact with high concentrations of silica dust for several years are significantly more likely to be affected than those who underwent short-term exposure. Accordingly, silica exposure which occurs in the workplace is by far the most dangerous.

The following industries and activities entail a high risk if workers are not constantly wearing protective equipment while handling silica-containing materials:

  • construction industry (masonry, sandblasting, jack hammering etc.)
  • stone cutting
  • agriculture
  • mining (drilling through or cutting granite or sandstone)
  • shipbuilding (abrasive blasting)
  • glass manufacturing
  • foundry work (moldings, shakeout, grinding etc.)
  • pottery industry
  • railroad (setting and laying tracks)
  • jewelry production
  • china and ceramic manufacturing
  • hydraulic fracturing for gas and oil
  • steel industry
  • refractory installation and repair
  • soap and detergent manufacturing

At the moment, silica dust is present in approximately 676,000 workplaces in the U.S. The most perilous activity, which releases enormous amounts of crystalline silica in the air, is abrasive blasting. It is performed with multiple purposes, such as to clean and smooth irregularities from jewelry, foundry castings, and molds, to etch glass, to finish tombstones, as well as to remove oil, paint, or rust from objects which are to be restored. Exposure from consumer products is unlikely to result in a disease. Nonetheless, since it remains a carcinogenic agent, regardless of the amount in which it exists, it is better to avoid silica as much as possible and opt for silica-free products instead.

Are There Any Workplace Regulations Concerning Silica Exposure?

Yes. In fact, because the previous permissible silica exposure limit for occupational settings, which became effective 45 years ago, was outdated and inconsistent with contemporary study results stating that even low-level exposure to silica dust can result in serious diseases, OSHA has recently issued a new one. Thus, the permissible limit is now set at 50 micrograms of airborne silica per cubic meter of air, averaged over a period of eight hours. By virtue of OSHA’s new rule, officially known as 29 CFR 1926.55(a), workers in the general industry will be exposed to 50% less silica, whereas those in the construction and maritime industries will inhale 80% less toxic dust on the job.

According to OSHA, the new silica rule is going to spare over 600 lives and prevent approximately 900 new silicosis cases every year. While the rule took effect on June 23, 2016, the industries it targets have one to five years to comply with the requirements, as follows:

  • construction – September 23, 2017, one year after enforcement
  • general and maritime – June 23, 2018, two years after enforcement
  • hydraulic fracturing – June 23, 2018, with the exception of Engineering Controls, whose compliance date is June 23, 2021, five years after enforcement

We Provide Reliable Silica Testing Services Nationwide

With over 25 years of professional experience, our certified industrial hygienists perform silica testing using NIOSH method 7500 by X-ray diffraction, which is able to accurately differentiate between crystalline and amorphous silica in air samples, as well as in bulk samples. Catering to a wide range of industries which employ silica-containing materials, our experts will ensure that the air concentration of silica in your facilities is below OSHA’s new permissible limit, so that both you and your employees can enjoy a safe work environment. Our standard fee is a 40% contingency fee. Which means we only collect the fee when we are able to collect settlements or claims for a client. If we do not collect anything, our clients are not out any money out of pocket.

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