What dust does to your lungs

Despite the existence of natural mechanisms that protect them from dust particles, your lungs are not immune to diseases caused by the excessive inhalation of tiny materials. We mention lung allergies or fibrosis, a lung condition that causes breathing difficulties and even death.

What are the consequences of inhaling dust for your lungs ? What materials are the most at risk and how can you protect yourself ? Here are the answers to all your questions.

The role of the lungs

As we all know, lungs are the organs that allow us to breathe and extract the oxygen that is in the air to carry it in our blood. They are also responsible for expelling the carbon dioxide that is in the expired outward. They are never safe from inadvertent inhalation of dust particles that are likely to harm them deeply.

Fortunately, lungs have a natural defense system, a sort of barrier that prevents dust of any kind from reaching the respiratory system. However, it can happen in some cases because even though they can expel these tiny foreign bodies themselves, lungs sometimes develop diseases from it. When the first symptoms appear, it becomes difficult to overcome them and the consequences are, unfortunately, often fatal.

What happens when you breathe dust

Even if you accidentally inhale dust, this thin particles do not necessarily reach your lungs. Your lungs have in fact several defense mechanisms, including the nose hair, the mucus secreted by the bronchial tubes or bronchioles and the vibratiles cilia lining the walls of the air ducts. If dust particles still arrive in the alveolar sacs and the lower airways of the lungs, they are immediately attacked by macrophages, defense cells whose role is to prevent the accumulation of foreign bodies. After swallowing, these cells join the airways protected by vibratile eyelashes and expel foreign bodies via the throat or mouth.

By producing certain proteins, lungs can also neutralize these particles in another way. These particles, which may be mineral or organic, may cause diseases such as histoplasmosis, psittacosis and Q fever. When derived from organic chemicals such as dyes or pesticides, they can have highly toxic effects that can develop cancer.

Lungs’ reaction against dust

The respiratory system reacts differently depending on the area where the dust particles have landed. If found in the nose, it causes inflammation of the nasal mucosa or rhinitis. If lodged in the airways, a tracheitis or bronchitis can develop.

The most serious reactions take place in the depths of the respiratory system. Indeed, if a large number of particles land in the air sacs or the ends of the airways, the lung defense mechanism may no longer be effective. Pulmonary lesions then appear and the gravity depends on the quantity and nature of the particles concerned.

In the case of silica debris, macrophages die trying to destroy them. They then release toxic substances that cause the formation of fibrous or scar tissue. This materials are so important that they disturb the functioning of the organ. Then appears the so called fibrosis affection, whose particles are called fibrogens. In case of silica inhalation, this is called silicosis.

Factors influencing the effects of dust

Several factors can affect the severity of these diseases caused by the effects of dust on lungs. The first one is the size of the particle, then comes its chemical composition, likely to destroy vibratiles cilia. The state of health of the person who has breathed dust is the next factor, including his breathing rate, smoking (if relevant), etc. The more intensely the person inhales and the longer he keeps his breath, the more his probabilities of developing fibrosis grow.

Disease linked to dust work

It is not surprising, therefore, if people working in a dusty environment are the most likely to develop diseases from dust inhalation. These are referred to as pneumoconiosis or dusty lungs in reference to how they contracted them. If diseases come from silica, lungs are still a bit elastic, which is the opposite of diseases resulting from exposure to asbestos, beryllium or cobalt. In these diseases, the scar tissue usually covers the surfaces of the lower airways, making the lungs completely rigid.

Carbon and iron dust, however, do not cause the same consequences, because they remain trapped by macrophages until they die. Other cells catch up with them and so on. In case the number of particles exceeds that of macrophages, they only lay on the inner walls of the respiratory areas without causing scarring process. Only tiny lesions appear.

Lung protection against dust exposure

Also, to avoid the appearance of these respiratory diseases caused by the inhalation of dust in large quantities, it is necessary to replace risky materials by other, less dangerous. If this is not possible, other methods of technical control should be used.

Wet processes are therefore reliable alternatives. It is the same for the confinement of the processes causing dust, and this is done under negative pressure. There is also the extraction of dusty air with a collecting system before releasing it into the atmosphere or the use of vacuum cleaners instead of brooms. Maintenance of the premises has to be done regularly and carefully, just like storage and transport, but also the disposal of the toxic waste produced.