What Is It?
Pneumoconiosis is a lung condition that is caused by inhaling particles of mineral dust, usually while working in a high-risk, mineral-related industry. At first, irritating mineral dust can trigger lung inflammation, which causes areas of the lung to be temporarily damaged. Over time, these areas can progress to form tough, fibrous tissue deposits. This stage of pneumoconiosis is called fibrosis. Fibrosis stiffens the lungs and interferes with the lung's normal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
There are several different types of pneumoconiosis. In the United States, the most common types include:
Pneumoconiosis sometimes does not cause any symptoms. When symptoms develop, they can include:
If pneumoconiosis causes severe lung fibrosis, breathing can become extremely difficult. When this happens, the patient's lips and fingernails may have a bluish tinge. In very advanced disease, there also may be signs of leg swelling caused by too much strain on the heart.
Your doctor will ask about your exposure to mineral dusts, the number of years you were exposed, and whether you used protective clothing and equipment. Your doctor will examine you, paying special attention to your chest. This will be followed by a chest X-ray, which will be compared to a set of standard X-rays published by the International Labor Office for the evaluation of pneumoconiosis. Your doctor may order breathing tests, called pulmonary function tests. In some patients, a more detailed computed tomography (CT) scan of the chest is necessary. Less often, a doctor will order a test called a bronchoscopy with a lung biopsy. In this test, a flexible tube is inserted into a lung and a small piece of lung tissue is removed to be examined in a laboratory.
Pneumoconiosis causes permanent lung changes. However, you can stop it from getting worse.
Pneumoconiosis almost always can be prevented. To reduce your risk, you can:
If you have pneumoconiosis and you develop breathing problems, your doctor will advise you to avoid further exposure to the mineral dust. He or she may prescribe one or two medicines that are inhaled to decrease inflammation in your airways and to help keep your bronchial tubes open. If the oxygen level in your blood is below 90%, you may need to breathe additional oxygen at home. Also, to help protect your damaged lungs against respiratory infections, your doctor will recommend immunization with the influenza (flu) and pneumococcal vaccines. If you develop a respiratory infection, you may need to be treated with antibiotics.
When pneumoconiosis causes extreme breathing problems, a lung transplant is the only cure.
When to Call a Professional
Call your doctor promptly if you have symptoms of pneumoconiosis and you have worked at a job where there is a high risk of exposure to mineral dust.
The outlook for this disease depends on the specific type of pneumoconiosis, the length of exposure to mineral dust, the level of exposure and whether the patient is a smoker.
In the long term, people with asbestosis and talc pneumoconiosis have an increased risk of lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma (cancer of the membranes lining the lungs and abdominal cavity). The risk of lung cancer is especially high in smokers with asbestosis.
Because male workers fill most of the jobs that carry high risks of pneumoconiosis, the majority of deaths from pneumoconiosis occur in men.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
American Lung Association
New York, NY 10019
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20460
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
4676 Columbia Parkway
Mail Stop C-18
Cincinnati, OH 45226