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Is Silica dust the new asbestos? The dangers of asbestos exposure are well known and since 1999 legislation has been in place that bans its use. However tens of thousands of people are dying each year worldwide from a cancer caused by Respirable Crystalline Silica (or RCS). A new cross-industry initiative has been developed to raise awareness of this avoidable illness.

Silica dust - the new asbestos

The HSE define RCS as:

“Silica is a natural substance found in varying amounts in most rocks, sand and clay. For example, sandstone contains more than 70% silica, whereas granite might contain 15-30%. Silica is also a major constituent of construction materials such as bricks, tiles, concrete and mortar.

You generate dust from these materials during many common construction tasks. These include cutting, drilling, grinding and polishing. Some of this dust is fine enough to get deep into your lungs. The fine dust is known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and is too fine to see with normal lighting. It is commonly called silica or silica dust.”


The construction, rail, and mineral products sectors have joined trade and health bodies and regulators in attempting to raise industry awareness and encourage the taking of preventative action against exposure.

RCS is common in many industries including quarrying and construction – work involving bricks, rocks and concrete means significant exposure which can cause silicosis and lung cancer. Unlike asbestos, these materials aren’t optional but straightforward control measures such as LEVs and PPE can help prevent future health problems. As with any inherent health and safety issue, employers must be educated to raise awareness and implement those measure to control exposure.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) hosted representatives from industry, academia and the safety and health profession in London last year, and those participants have signed a worldwide commitment to make sure businesses, and those working within them, receive up-to-date information and advice on how to protect themselves.

So, is Silica Dust the new asbestos? Of course we fervently hope not; certainly both the use of PPE and broad awareness is so much better than it was when asbestos was being used in such abundance. But good training and the regular implementation of strict operating policies remain, as always, the key.

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