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Pneumoconiosis is a broad term referring to a class of interstitial lung diseases caused by the inhalation of various types of dust, leading to interstitial fibrosis. The most common types are asbestosis, silicosis, and coal miner's lung.

Pneumoconiosis frequently results in restrictive lung impairment, although it can be present without significant impairment of lung function. The severity and progression of the disease vary widely, ranging from asymptomatic cases to fatal outcomes within months or years.

It is predominantly an occupational disease, often resulting from prolonged exposure to dust in industries such as mining, textile milling, shipbuilding, sandblasting, rock drilling, and agriculture. Pneumoconiosis is one of the most prevalent occupational diseases globally.

Micrograph of asbestosis (with ferruginous bodies), a type of pneumoconiosis. H&E stain.
Micrograph of asbestosis (with ferruginous bodies), a type of pneumoconiosis. H&E stain.


Pneumoconiosis is categorised based on the type of dust inhaled:

  • Coalworker's pneumoconiosis: Also known as coal miner's lung, black lung, or anthracosis, this condition is caused by inhalation of coal dust.
  • Aluminosis: Resulting from aluminium dust.
  • Asbestosis: Caused by asbestos fibres.
  • Silicosis: Also known as "grinder's disease" or Potter's rot, it results from crystalline silica dust.
  • Bauxite fibrosis: From bauxite dust.
  • Berylliosis: Due to beryllium.
  • Siderosis: Iron dust inhalation.
  • Byssinosis: Cotton dust inhalation, showing different lung abnormalities compared to other types.
  • Chalicosis: Fine stonecutting dust.
  • Silicosiderosis: Mixed dust containing silica and iron.
  • Labrador lung: Found in miners in Labrador, Canada, caused by mixed dust including iron, silica, and anthophyllite.
  • Stannosis: Tin oxide dust.
  • Talcosis: Talc dust inhalation.
  • Baritosis: Barium dust, typically benign.
  • Mixed-dust pneumoconiosis: Involves multiple types of dust.


The lung's response to mineral dusts is influenced by factors such as particle size, shape, solubility, and reactivity. Particles larger than 5 to 10 μm usually do not reach the distal airways, while those smaller than 0.5 μm can enter and exit the alveoli with minimal deposition. The most hazardous particles are between 1 to 5 μm, lodging at the bifurcations of distal airways.

Coal dust is relatively inert, requiring large deposits to cause detectable disease, whereas reactive particles like silica, asbestos, and beryllium can trigger fibrotic reactions at lower concentrations. Inhaled dust is generally trapped in the mucus and removed by ciliary movement, but some particles reach alveolar ducts, where they are engulfed by macrophages.

These macrophages release inflammatory mediators, leading to fibroblast proliferation and collagen deposition. Smoking exacerbates the effects of inhaled dust, particularly asbestos.

Signs and Symptoms

Patients typically present with:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness


Diagnostic tools include patient history, physical examination, and imaging studies:

  • Chest X-ray: May show patchy, subpleural, bibasilar interstitial infiltrates or honeycombing in advanced disease.
  • Caplan's syndrome: Pneumoconiosis with pulmonary rheumatoid nodules in rheumatoid arthritis patients.


As of 2021, there were approximately 527,500 cases of pneumoconiosis globally, with over 60,000 new cases reported in 2017. Despite a downward trend since 2015, mortality remains high, with over 21,000 annual deaths. Under-diagnosis and under-reporting are significant issues, especially in countries with less developed healthcare systems.

Treatment and Prognosis

Lung damage from pneumoconiosis is irreversible. Treatment focuses on slowing disease progression and symptom relief:

  • Medications and breathing treatments to open airways and reduce inflammation.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation and supplemental oxygen.
  • Lung transplant in severe cases.
  • Smoking cessation is very important.
  • Regular monitoring with X-rays or lung function tests.


Preventative measures include:

  • Wearing masks in high-risk industries.
  • Washing skin exposed to dust.
  • Cleaning dust from clothing.
  • Washing face and hands before eating or drinking.

Governments regulate industry to limit dust exposure. In the United States, the Black Lung Benefits Act provides financial and medical support to coal miners affected by pneumoconiosis.

Self-assessment MCQs (single best answer)

What is pneumoconiosis?

Which of the following is NOT a type of pneumoconiosis?

What is the primary cause of coalworker's pneumoconiosis?

Which type of dust causes asbestosis?

Which of the following particles are most hazardous in causing pneumoconiosis?

What is Caplan's syndrome?

Which diagnostic tool is commonly used to detect pneumoconiosis?

What is the primary goal of treatment for pneumoconiosis?

Which of the following is a key preventative measure for pneumoconiosis?

What is the significance of the Black Lung Benefits Act in the United States?


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