Veterans and Silica Dust

Military veterans were exposed to harmful chemicals like asbestos and silica dust while onboard ships and working in shipyards. Cleaning practices like abrasive blasting released the chemicals and made it easier to breathe them in. These materials cause serious conditions like silicosis and asbestosis after long-term exposure. They are also carcinogens, which means they cause cancer. Veterans Guide offers an overview of veterans and silica dust, including what symptoms to look for and your options if you have been harmed by exposure.

What is Silica Dust?

Silica dust is a carcinogen, meaning it is a hazardous, cancer-causing substance. It is found in many common materials, both natural and man-made. Artificial stone, granite, quartz, sand, soil, mortar, and concrete are all examples of materials containing silica.

When materials containing the substance are drilled, broken, or crushed, it releases silica dust into the air. The dust holds particles called respirable crystalline silica or RCS, which are small enough to be inhaled deeply into the lungs.

After long-term exposure to silica dust or RCS, you can develop silicosis. This serious condition can have long-term and irreversible consequences for your health. According to the American Lung Association, silicosis results from permanent scarring of the lung tissue—a condition known as pulmonary fibrosis.

In addition to silicosis, breathing in RCS can also lead to other medical conditions like lung cancer.

Veterans have often been exposed to silica dust during their service and developed conditions like silicosis. In particular, Navy veterans and shipyard workers were at high risk of silica dust exposure with the resulting serious health effects.

What Are the Types of Silicosis?

Although silicosis usually develops over an extended period, people can start experiencing symptoms rather quickly. How rapidly you get the effects of silica exposure is what distinguishes the three silicosis types:

Even short exposure to this dangerous chemical can cause lasting harm.

How Much Silica Exposure Is Harmful?

Silica is already in the environment, so Occupational Health and Safety Administration standards set a personal exposure limit, or PEL, for how much is permissible.

Under OSHA standard 1910.1053, which outlines what employers must do to reduce risk from respirable crystalline silica, the standards apply if exposure will be 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air as a time-weighted average over eight hours.

According to this regulation, the PEL is 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air as a time-weighted average over eight hours.

What Are the Symptoms of Silicosis?

When you first develop silicosis, you might not have any symptoms. As symptoms begin to develop, you might find daily tasks become difficult. Here’s what you might experience:

If you have any early signs, such as cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath, it’s a good idea to speak with a doctor and mention your exposure to silica dust. If you have worsening symptoms, consult a medical professional immediately.

Silicosis and Lung Cancer

People who experience silicosis have an increased risk of developing lung cancer. This greater risk exists even if you don’t smoke or have any other risk factors for lung cancer. While researchers don’t know exactly why silicosis increases lung cancer risk, they speculate silicosis suppresses the immune system in the lungs and lets tumors grow.

In silicosis, the silica particles cause the formation of nodules in the lungs and scarring that causes stiffening of the lungs. The stiffening and scarring make it hard to breathe.

Silicosis can also lead to other serious health conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease, and tuberculosis.

How Were Veterans Exposed to Silica?

Navy veterans and shipyard workers were particularly vulnerable to silica dust exposure. The hazard came from prolonged exposure to ship materials that contained silica and asbestos. Asbestos can cause a condition called asbestosis after long-term exposure.

Asbestos exposure can cause cancers like mesothelioma and lung, larynx, and ovarian cancer. Other complications of silicosis include chronic bronchitis, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and autoimmune disorders.

Sailors and shipyard workers were exposed to these hazardous substances during the regular course of their jobs. They had to clean and repair ships using dangerous methods that increased the risk of breathing in harmful silica dust and asbestos. Such methods include abrasive blasting, which uses compressed air to blow sand at high speeds.

How Can Silica Exposure Be Prevented in the Military?

The military can take steps to help reduce the amount of silica exposure. Among the techniques and tools the military can use are:

In addition to these protective features, the military has incorporated OSHA’s standard for preventing silica exposure. This extensive guide outlines how to modify equipment and working environments to significantly reduce silica exposure risk, depending on the specific activity the worker undertakes. Stone-cutter employers should also adhere to these OSHA guidelines to keep their employees and contractors safe.

What Has the Military Done to Prevent Silica Exposure?

The Navy has taken steps to increase the safe environments for service members through several initiatives. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the Navy started to remove or replace asbestos from its ships.

An ongoing initiative is the Navy’s Silica Medical Surveillance Program, which applies to workers who have exposure above the OSHA PEL for 30 days or more per year. The program conducts medical evaluations to spot the early signs and symptoms of illnesses linked to silica exposure.

Filing a Silicosis Lawsuit

If you are a veteran who has experienced silicosis, you can learn about your legal options for a silicosis lawsuit by speaking with an attorney. While you can’t sue the military for your exposure, you may be able to sue the manufacturers and distributors of products containing silica and other third parties responsible for your exposure. There are ongoing lawsuits against stone product manufacturers, such as stone countertops, by workers who have experienced silicosis because of workplace exposure.

Because a lawsuit involves finding specific evidence to link your time in service to your medical condition, it is important to get assistance from a lawyer experienced with veterans and silica dust.

If you need legal help, no matter what kind of work led to your silica dust-related illness, Veterans Guide can point you in the right direction. Contact us today to learn more.