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Silicosis: Medical Aspects. Lawrence Martin, M.D., FACP, FCCP Associate Professor of Medicine Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine Cleveland Presented at:

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Silicosis medical aspects l.jpg
Silicosis: Medical Aspects

Lawrence Martin, M.D., FACP, FCCP

Associate Professor of Medicine

Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine Cleveland

Presented at:

Mealey's LexisNexis Conference: Silicosis Litigation & Medicine Marina Del Rey, Los Angeles, CA

November 14, 2005

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Silica and Silicosis - definitions

  • Silica is silicon dioxide, the oxide of silicon, chemical formula SiO2.

  • SiO2 is the most abundant mineral on earth; comprises large part of granite, sandstone and slate.

  • Silicosis is lung disease caused by inhalation of fine silica dust; the dust causes inflammation and then scarring of the lungs. Scarring shows up on chest x-ray.

  • Silicosis is one type of pneumoconiosis, the medical term for lung scarring from inhaled dust. Pneumoconiosis can also occur from inhaled asbestos (asbestosis), coal (coal workers’ pneumonconiosis), beryllium (berylliosis), and other respirable dusts.

  • There is no effective treatment for any pneumoconiosis, including silicosis

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Chest x-rays – silicosisnormal x-ray silicosis (upper lobes) silicosis -- diffuse

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Diagnosis of Silicosis

  • Abnormal chest X-ray (or chest CT scan) consistent with silicosis

  • History of significant exposure to silica dust

  • Medical evaluation to exclude other possible causes of abnormal chest x-ray

  • Pulmonary function tests are helpful to gauge severity of impairment, but NOT for diagnosis.

  • Lung biopsy rarely indicated (since no effective treatment, biopsy is done only when other diagnoses are being considered)

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Silica Dust

  • Silica is a common, naturally occurring crystal. Found in most rock beds, it forms a fine dust during mining, quarrying, and tunneling. Silica is a principal component of sand, so glass workers and sand-blasters can also receive heavy exposure.

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  • Beach sand, desert sand, golf bunker sand -- not harmful with ordinary exposure.

  • Silicosis requires intense &/or prolonged exposure to very fine airborne sand particles.

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Silica Dust Exposure – Risk Factors

  • Any work that exposes you to silica dust:

    • mining

    • stone cutting

    • quarrying

    • road and building construction

    • work with abrasives

    • glass manufacturing

    • sand blasting

    • Also, some hobbies can involve exposure to silica (sculptor, glass blower)

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Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis

  • CWP is indistinguishable from Silicosis

    Normal chest x-ray

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Compressed air at high pressure is used to blow fine sand or other abrasive material through a hardened spray nozzle. The abrasive particles quickly eat away whatever they are directed at, leaving a clean, matte surface.

Silicosis - Sandblasting

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Silicosis - Tunnel constructionWorst single incidence of silicosis in U.S. – Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, Gauley Bridge, W. Va., 1930-1931

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Silicosis – Glass Factory Workers

Sumathi, 19, admitted to Government Hospital, Pondicherry, India, suffers from severe silicosis. She worked in the sand plant (where silica is sieved) of a glass-container manufacturing plant.

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Silicosis – history

Full description by Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714) in early 18th century. “...when the bodies of such workers are dissected, they have been found to be stuffed with small stones.” Diseases of Workers (De Morbis Artificum Diatriba, 1713).

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Silicosis - history

  • First U.S. description in 19th century.

  • Term silicosis introduced in 1870, from Latin silex, or flint.

  • Prevalence increased markedly with introduction of mechanized mining.

  • Came to national attention 1930-1931 with construction of Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Called “the worst industrial accident in U.S. history.” At least 764 tunnel workers died from silicosis. Hawk’s Nest disaster led to Congressional hearings in 1936, and new laws protecting workers in many states.

  • Prevalence of silicosis has greatly declined in recent decades because of effective industrial hygiene measures.

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Silicosis deaths -,157 (1968) 148 (2002)

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Three ‘types’ of silicosis

  • Simple chronic silicosis From long-term exposure (10-20 years) to low amounts of silica dust. Nodules of chronic inflammation and scarring, provoked by the silica dust, form in the lungs and chest lymph nodes. Patients often asymptomatic, seen for other reasons.

  • Accelerated silicosis (= PMF, progressive massive fibrosis) Occurs after exposure to larger amounts of silica over a shorter period of time (5-10 years). Inflammation, scarring, and symptoms progress faster in accelerated silicosis than in simple silicosis. Patients have symptoms, especially shortness of breath.

  • Acute silicosis From short-term exposure to very large amounts of silica dust. The lungs become very inflamed, causing severe shortness of breath and low blood oxygen level.Killed hundreds of workers during Hawk’s Nest Tunnel construction early 1930s.

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Simple Silicosisnormal chest x-ray simple silicosis

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Accelerated Silicosis (= Progressive Massive Fibrosis) normal chest x-ray PMF

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Accelerated Silicosis (PMF)chest x-ray CT scan

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Silicosis – associated risks

  • Having silicosis increases risk of contracting tuberculosis & lung cancer.

  • Degree of increased risk is highly variable; depends on several OTHER factors, including immune system & exposure history (for TB), and amount of lung scarring, age & smoking history (for cancer).

  • Silicosis also strongly associated with scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Other associations less well established: lupus, systemic vasculitis, end-stage kidney disease.

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Diagnosis of silicosis - summary

  • Abnormal chest X-ray or chest CT scan

  • History of significant exposure to silica dust

  • Medical evaluation to rule out other causes of abnormal x-ray

  • Pulmonary function tests

  • Lung biopsy rarely used

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Silicosis can be mis-diagnosed as something else

  • Silicosis can mimic:

    • Sarcoidosis (benign inflammation of unknown cause)

    • Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring of unknown cause)

    • Lung cancer

    • Several other lung conditions (chronic infection, collagen-vascular disease, etc.)

      Can usually make right diagnosis with detailed history (occupational & medical) or, rarely, a lung biopsy.

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Silicosis first diagnosed as Sarcoidosis

  • March 2000 – 32 yo male presented with cough and abnormal chest x-ray. Bronchoscopic lung biopsy read as “suggestive of sarcoidosis in proper clinical setting.” At the time he was meter reader for local utility. Had prior history of foundry work, but no workers’ comp claim filed (sarcoidosis is not occupational illness). He was treated with prednisone for cough and progressive shortness of breath.

  • Seen by new lung specialist Feb 2005. Found to have worsening chest x-ray; also ?eggshell calcification. History noted of foundry work 1987-1993, with intense exposure to silica (“sand blaster”). Occupational history strongly suggested silicosis, not sarcoidosis.

  • New chest CT scan ordered. It confirmed eggshell calcification and other abnormalities much more consistent with silicosis.

  • Presumptive diagnosis changed to silicosis, and workers’ comp claim filed. BWC accepted new diagnosis.

  • He continues to work, albeit with severe pulmonary impairment.

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Who should make the diagnosis of silicosis?

  • Treating doctors? Yes, in some cases, but not practical for disease screening

  • Plaintiff-attorney-hired physicians? Never, considering the asbestos and silicosis-MDL experience

  • Objective physicians not beholden to either plaintiff or defense interests? Yes, especially for disease screening

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Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) Decision Criticizes Thousands of Silicosis Claims

  • Despite the marked decline in silicosis, in recent years plaintiff attorneys have filed thousands of claims for this disease. In order to ascertain the validity of the diagnoses, they were consolidated in a single Texas federal court, under U.S. District Judge Janis Jack. In June 2005, Judge Jack issued a 249-page decision, stating “. . . that truth matters in a courtroom no less than in a doctor’s office.”

  • Judge Jack found that the vast majority of approximately 10,000 silicosis claims consolidated in multidistrict litigation “were essentially manufactured on an assembly line” run by plaintiffs’ lawyers, screening companies and doctors.

  • Her decision sharply criticized the plaintiffs’ diagnoses, granted a motion for sanctions against a plaintiff law firm and concluded that most of the MDL cases should be remanded to state court for further proceedings.

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Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) Decision Criticizes Thousands of Silicosis Claims (cont.)

  • Of >8000 cases of silicosis manufactured by MDL plaintiff attorneys whose medical records were examined, not a SINGLE one was ever diagnosed by the claimants’ own treating physicians.

  • Judge Jack’s conclusion that the MDL cases “were driven by neither health nor justice” but instead “were manufactured for money” has become a watershed moment not only in the silica litigation nationwide, but is likely to affect other areas of mass tort litigation based upon a similar model.

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Dallas Ft Worth Star-Telegram, February 17, 2005 of Silicosis Claims (cont.)

“Judge calls

diagnoses methods



Mobile Register, March 13, 2005

Doctor's testimony ignites legal storm______________________________________

Fortune, June 13, 2005

Diagnosing for Dollars


Client Alert, July 14, 2005

2005 Multidistrict Litigation

Order Criticizes Thousands

of Silicosis Claims


Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2005

Silicosis Scandal


New York Times, October 9, 2005 The Tort Wars, at a Turning Point



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Plaintiff-attorney-manufactured process for silicosis is of Silicosis Claims (cont.)same as for asbestosis cases

  • “The significance of Judge Jack’s order goes far beyond the silicosis cases…Given that asbestosis cases used the same techniques to recruit plaintiffs and used the same medical screeners, [I’m] confident that if the same level of discovery were permitted with respect to asbestosis claims, the same kind of evidence of fraud on a massive scale would be uncovered.”

    -- Professor Lester Brickman, Cardozo Law School

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Plaintiff attorneys may set up the manufacturing process, but bogus diagnoses still require the complicity of physicians

In vast majority of asbestos claims, diagnoses are:

  • Medically unfounded; diagnostic methods violate sound medical principles (relevant medical history ignored or omitted; no differential diagnosis offered; serious diagnoses assumed from just a single chest x-ray)

    In some cases, diagnoses are:

  • Outright fraud (X-ray interpretations provided without looking at x-rays; pulmonary function data fudged)

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Will silicosis be different? but bogus diagnoses still require the complicity of physicians

Mass bogus diagnoses will always be possible as long as:

  • There are physicians willing to make diagnoses for money.


  • The courts can’t/won’t distinguish legitimate diagnoses from manufactured ones.


  • Organized, academic medicine (AMA, ATS, ACCP) remains silent about these diagnostic scams.

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Silicosis Screening but bogus diagnoses still require the complicity of physicians

Without a fair and objective diagnostic process from the beginning:

  • Abuses will occur.

  • Physicians and their bogus diagnoses will continue to be bought.

  • Organized/academic medicine will continue its hurtful silence.

  • Plaintiff attorneys will shop venues until they find judge(s) that allow junk science into evidence.

  • More companies will be bankrupted.

  • Compensation for seriously-injured workers will be delayed.

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Silicosis Screening but bogus diagnoses still require the complicity of physicians

  • It is unconscionable that workers with real occupational disease are delayed just compensation because bogus diagnoses -- manufactured simply to make money -- clog the system.

  • This has happened repeatedly to asbestos-inured workers: delayed compensation because tens of thousands manufactured asbestos diagnoses have overwhelmed the courts.

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To avoid repeating the asbestos diagnosis scam, absolutely essential that silicosis screening process be fair & objective

1) Screening process should be agreed to by both plaintiff and defense interests, and its methodology published in advance (listing all parties who will be involved). Any revisions should also be published as they occur.

2) Chest x-rays in any screening process must be interpreted in a BLINDED fashion, i.e., origin of x-rays must be unknown to interpreting radiologists.

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To avoid repeating the asbestos diagnosis scam, absolutely essential that silicosis screening process be fair & objective (cont.)

3) Radiologists must NOT be paid by one side alone, but from a common fund, and irrespective of their findings.

4) The entire diagnostic process must be made transparent. For example, an audit of every physician’s readings, positive and negative, should be made available at all legal proceedings involving that physician’s reports.

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Bogus diagnoses essential that silicosis screening process be fair & objective (cont.)

  • Fool me once, shame on you.

  • Fool me twice, shame on me.

    Don’t let it happen again!

    References for this talk are at