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Is Silica Bad for the Environment?

Silica dioxide or most commonly known as silica. Is commonly found in nature in most parts of the world. It is solid at a normal temperature.

The silica usually resides in soil, but sometimes it also can be found on plants or even inside humans’ bodies. The human body contains around 2-5 g of silica while some adults may have more than that but have the same health benefit. Silica is an important substance for humans because it strengthens the structure of many kinds of tissues.

People can get an overdose of silica when they are exposed to it for a very long time or when the amount that they are exposed to is too much.

It also serves as a component in many industries like electronics, pharmaceuticals, food, and much more. But what are the factors affecting environmental health? Is silica bad for the environment?

What is silica?

Yellow Silica Sand Grain

Silica is a chemical compound that comes in various forms like sand, soil, quartz, and cristobalite (crystalline silica form of SiO2). It is used as an ingredient in many industries. And sometimes it is also found in the human body, some people have less, some have a more but same health benefit.

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What are the uses of silica?

Man crafting a glass test tube
Quino Al / Unsplash
  • Glassmaking
  • Sandblasting and sandpaper products
  • Many types of dishes such as glasses and cups (pyrex, Corelle)
  • Adhesives like glue 
  • Found in toothpaste 

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What is crystalline silica? 

Man cutting concrete with an angle grinder
Asurnipal / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Silica occurs in nature in the form of crystalline silica also known as quartz. This crystalline silica is extremely sharp and fragile.

When these crystals shatter, they actually fragment into small dust particles, which can be breathed in easily by humans or animals. The smaller the fragments produced, the more harmful it becomes to the environment and living things around them. 

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How is silica mined or harvested?

Silica Sand Grain

It is commonly harvested from mines. Although Silica is also extracted from sand and quarries through mining tunnels. 

In order to be used in many industries, it has to undergo a purifying process. The silica needs to become soluble in water for it to be useful.

Mining and harvesting of silica are strictly regulated and require environmental credentials, inappropriate harvesting of these crystals is a very poor environmental alternative that causes pollution.

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Are there any potentially hidden environmental costs in mining silica?

Silica sand mine site at Lochaline
Helen Wilkinson / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Yes. Mining tunnels have to be constructed in the process. These tunnels degrade the soil and environment around them, as well as create negative effects on local wildlife. 

Also during this process sometimes they forget to eliminate plastic waste. Silica exposure also is quite prone to the workers. Emissions from equipment used in mining are creating greenhouse gases also.

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How does respirable crystalline silica affect humans?

Patient in a IV on a hospital bed
Olga Kononenko / Unsplash

It can cause silicosis, which is a lung disease caused by breathing in crystalline silica dust. It is similar to other types of pneumoconiosis that are also caused by the inhalation of dust, like coal workers’ pneumoconiosis or black lung disease.

Silicosis starts with simple inflammation and progresses to scarring in the lungs, called pulmonary fibrosis. However, silicosis is a separate disease from asbestosis and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.

Silica can irritate the nose, throat, and lungs of those that are exposed to it. This may cause coughing spells or shortness of breath

Inhalation of crystalline silica dust can cause allergic sensitization, which increases the effect of silica dust on the respiratory system.

Other health effects are can cause lung cancer because of its high radioactive properties. Exposure to silica has been linked with the development of cancers such as stomach cancer and other solid tumors.

Other health effects include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), liver damage, skin irritation, chronic bronchitis, peptic ulcers, anemia, and kidney damage.

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What are some symptoms of silicosis?

Man holding chest due to a chest pain
Pexels / Pixabay

Some symptoms of silicosis include shortness of breath, fever, chills, cough, chest pain, or tightness

The severity of symptoms depends on the extent to which the lungs are affected. Some people with light cases may not have any symptoms at all. Severe cases can lead to complications such as pneumonia

Silicosis is a progressive and irreversible lung disease that causes scarring in the lungs and makes it difficult for oxygen to be absorbed into the bloodstream.

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What are some possible health hazards of using products that have crystalline silica?

Silica Gel Sachets

Products with high concentrations of cristobalite can be extremely dangerous due to their acute toxicity since they can easily penetrate bodily tissues and organs

High exposures to crystalline silica dust can cause acute human health effects such as shortness of breath, watery eyes and nose, throat irritation, and feeling tired.

Exposure to very high concentrations of silica may result in death as it causes asphyxiation by severely restricting oxygen flow to vital organs. This is why silica dust poses threat to both environmental and human health.

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How does silica dust affect animals?

Sick and sad puppy
isakarakus / Pixabay

Silica dust may cause or worsen respiratory tract problems in animals that are exposed to it.

Cats, horses, cattle, and pigs are more likely to ingest silica particles than other animals because of their habit of chewing on objects.

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How does crystalline silica dust affect wildlife?

Squirrel eating nuts
Caleb Martin / Adobe Stock

Crystalline silica dust increases the abrasion of leaves which reduces photosynthesis, decreases seed production, impairs seedling growth, increases plant disease and pest resistance.

It reduces microbial activity in the soil which can decrease water content in the soil. It also makes it difficult for plants to absorb nutrients.

Crystalline silica dust significantly affects amphibians by being inhaled, ingested, or absorbed over a long period of time causing weight loss, emaciation, abnormal gait, acute toxicity, cardiac arrest, and death.

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How does crystalline silica dust affect the environment?

Military man blowing the dust off
Tech. Sgt. Caycee Watson / Wikimedia Commons, Public domain

The effects of crystalline silica dust are greater near or at ground level because it settles on plants, soil, rocks, and other surfaces nearby. The effects are also increased farther away from the initial source of contamination since wind can increase the spread of silica particles.

Crystalline silica dust has higher toxicity to some species that live closer to the soil, such as earthworms and small mammals. Crystalline silica dust can also affect aquatic organisms since it settles in water sources near areas with high contaminated soils.

Soil contamination by silica can make it difficult for plants to grow, which can affect the food chain since carnivores hunt prey that eats plants.

Crystalline silica dust degrades plant surfaces (usually leaves), soil microbes, and other small organisms like insects and worms. It also affects plant growth by reducing photosynthesis, promoting plant disease, and inhibiting growth.

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What are methods for reducing the release of crystalline silica dust into the environment?

People planting trees or working in community garden promoting local food production
Patrick / Adobe Stock

Methods for reducing the unforeseen environmental impacts of crystalline silica dust include minimizing soil erosion, establishing wind barriers to reduce air pollution, planting vegetation buffers to absorb dust particles before they enter the atmosphere, applying special binders to soils before construction, and making sure crystalline silica dust is properly disposed of and eliminate plastic waste used during mining.

Prevention of excessive crystalline silica air pollution in the environment includes reducing the amount of dust generated, packaging alternatives, controlling wind erosion, disposing of contaminated soil in sealed landfills, using water to suppress dust around dusty areas, wetting areas that produce dust, and installing water sprinkling systems.

However certain activities that involve the use of crystalline silica require a permit and environmental credentials from federal or state regulators to prevent any environmental costs.

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What are some sources of crystalline silica in the environment?

Huge dust from a roadwork
Gennady Grachev from Moscow, Russia / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Some examples of common products that may contain significant amounts of crystalline silica include abrasive blasting materials, cement, brick, mortar, plaster, asphalt patching material, caulk joint compound, roofing materials concrete construction products including concrete blocks and pavers, fill, and decorative stone.

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Silica can be considered as bad for the environment in some circumstances and some forms, but it can also be beneficial.

Silica dust may cause or worsen respiratory tract problems in animals that are exposed to it.

Cats, horses, cattle, and pigs are more likely to ingest silica particles than other animals because of their habit of chewing on objects.

Silica dust can also affect people through inhalation, ingestion, or absorption.

Crystalline silica dust is harmful to cats and other animals when it is inhaled since the material can cause poisoning by damaging cells in the lungs.

Inappropriate harvesting of silica is a poor environmental alternative that has potentially hidden environmental costs.

In conclusion, silica is naturally part of our environment. What makes it worse are the unforeseen environmental impacts in the process of harvesting them.

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