New methodology to identify dust lung disease risk

Wednesday, 17 January, 2024

New methodology to identify dust lung disease risk

A new dust testing methodology, developed at The University of Queensland’s (UQ) Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI), offers workers better protection from diseases such as black lung and silicosis. The technique has been described in the journal Minerals.

Since 2019, Queensland Health has recorded at least 885 cases of Queensland workers being diagnosed with a dust-related lung diseases, mostly in the mining and quarrying, construction and manufacturing industries. Nikky LaBranche, Leader of the Dust and Respiratory Health Program at SMI, said workers could be exposed to dust particles of a variety of mineralogies and sizes, making the scientific community realise a new approach was needed.

“Exposure monitoring for dust and silica is currently based on the weight of particles, but this overlooks many details that we are beginning to understand have significant health effects,” LaBranche said.

“The methodology we have developed takes an in-depth look at particle characteristics such as size, shape and mineral makeup, along with their potential to group together.

“These things weren’t possible previously because of cost and technology, but we have used a Mineral Liberation Analyser, which is a specialised type of scanning electron microscope.”

LaBranche explained that the microscope can measure the size and shape of individual particles and create a mineral map across them. “This is important because the lighter and smaller particles are more easily breathed in to pose a health hazard, something which is overlooked in conventional weight testing,” she said.

“We could also see that the mineralogy of dust at sizes small enough to enter the lungs is generally of different concentrations than the dust source because some minerals break into the size of concern more easily.”

According to LaBranche, some mines have already contacted UQ to undertake this testing to better understand the dust risks on their sites. “UQ is now offering it as a service to industries that would benefit from this type of information,” she said.

Study co-author Professor David Cliff, also from SMI, said the new methodology would also contribute to research into the connection between the characteristics of particulates and the development of respirable dust diseases. “By understanding the mineralogy and shape of respirable dust particles, it will be possible to simulate their impact on the lungs so we can more accurately identify the risk factors for workers and tailor effective controls,” he said.

Image caption: Dust samples are collected on filters for analysis with UQ’s Mineral Liberation Analyser.

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