What is Pneumoconiosis?

Pneumoconiosis is a lung disease that is typically the result of inhaling coal dust. It is also called “Black Lung Disease.” Coal workers who inhale coal dust can develop simple pneumoconiosis, or the complicated form of the disease called Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF).

Pneumoconiosis is caused coal dust damaging the delicate lung tissue over time. It is an interstitial lung disease. The walls of the air sacs become inflamed over time and eventually this leads to permanent scarring. This scarring causes the lungs to stiffen, reducing the individual’s ability to take in oxygen.

Coal miners are not the only individuals exposed to coal dust or at risk for developing pneumoconiosis. Workers who load or work around coal can be exposed, especially if they are involved with shoveling or otherwise disturbing the coal. Graphite mills and mines are another prime location for the development of pneumoconiosis, as are areas with large furnaces and manufacturing sites for tires and other rubber goods.

Other versions of pneumoconiosis not related to coal include asbestosis due to asbestos exposure, berylliosis from exposure to beryllium, siderosis due to iron exposure, byssinosis in cotton workers, silicosis from silica exposure, silicosiderosis due to a combination of iron and silica, bauxite fibrosis from bauxite exposure, and Labrador Lung (not related to the dog) a disease that occurs in miners in Labrador, Canada, because of a dust containing silica, iron, and anthophyllite (a form of asbestos).

Pneumoconiosis can lead to secondary complications like lung cancer, cor pulmonale (failure of the right side of the heart), respiratory failure, or pulmonary tuberculosis. Unfortunately, there is no known treatment for pneumoconiosis, as is the case with so many degenerative lung conditions caused by exposure to harmful substances that damage the lungs. Scar tissue is scar tissue, wherever it happens on the body, and there is no known treatment for reversing the development of scar tissue in the lungs.

Symptoms and Treatment of Pneumoconiosis

As we explained in our above, pneumoconiosis is a disease typically caused by inhaling coal dust, and is usually related to mining work.

The disease starts developing with the regular inhalation of coal dust. The coal dust mildly irritates the lung sacs. The walls around the lung sacs respond by becoming a little inflamed. This goes unnoticed at first by the individual, but over time, the lung inflammation leads to scarring and stiffening in the lungs, reducing the person’s ability to properly oxygenate their body.

The affected individual may not have any symptoms at first, but as the disease quietly develops, they will usually develop a chronic cough and shortness of breath. The cough may seem mild and sporadic at first, but eventually becomes more frequent and intense until it becomes an obvious sign of a lung condition.

To diagnose pneumoconiosis, a physician will first listen to the lungs. An occupational history will be taken down to help the physician understand what the patient was exposed to and for how long. Though coal dust is the most common cause, pneumoconiosis can also be caused by exposure to asbestos, silica, iron, cotton, beryllium, and other air pollutants. A chest x-ray will reveal where the lung tissue has hardened from scarring and pulmonary function tests show the physician just how much the condition has affected the individual’s lungs thus far.

Pneumoconiosis can be prevented only by avoiding and/or reducing exposure to air pollutants. A breathing mask should be used by people who work around coal dust or other pollutants and proper washing of contaminated clothing, hands, arms, and face can reduce the length of exposure.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for pneumoconiosis, but the symptoms can be alleviated by oxygen therapy and other treatments. Quality of life and life expectancy can be improved through lifestyle changes and the proper administration of oxygen.

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