When is it Safe to Blast with Silica Sand?

Blasting with silica sands may cause serious injury or be fatal

For normal abrasive blasting it is NEVER safe, not even when you are wearing an approved respirator. The only exception maybe in a fully contained Blast and Vacuum System.

Blasting with silica sands, such as beach sand, river sand, and any other crystalline silica sand may cause serious injury or be fatal. Crystalline silica is recognized world-wide as a Class 1 Carcinogen.

Caution Silica Dust
Hazards of working with silica sand abrasive

The silica sand used in abrasive blasting typically fractures into fine particles and becomes airborne. When workers inhale the crystalline silica, the lung tissue reacts by developing fibrotic nodules and scarring around the trapped silica particles [Silicosis and Silicate Disease Committee 1988]. This fibrotic condition of the lung is called silicosis.

A worker may develop any of three types of silicosis, depending on the airborne concentration of crystalline silica.

  • Chronic silicosis, which usually occurs after 10 or more years of exposure to crystalline silica at relatively low concentrations
  • Accelerated silicosis, which results from exposure to high concentrations of crystalline silica and develops 5 to 10 years after the initial exposure
  • Acute silicosis, which occurs where exposure concentrations are the highest and can cause symptoms to develop within a few weeks to 4 or 5 years after the initial exposure [Peters 1986; Ziskind et al. 1976].

Silicosis (especially the acute form) is characterized by shortness of breath, fever, and cyanosis (bluish skin); it may often be misdiagnosed as pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs), pneumonia, or tuberculosis.

If you are continuing to use silica sand as your blasting media, you could be reducing the life expectancy of your blasters and others around the area by one day, every day they blast.

We also remember sad cases where employees’ families have been inadvertently exposed to silica dust – just from their contaminated clothes.

A common excuse used by blasters is they wear a blast helmet while blasting and that keeps them safe – however, any dust lying around after blasting can be swept up by the wind and be a hazard. In fact sweeping up spent sand and dust can be one of the most dangerous moments, due to invisible dust on outside of the blast helmet and cape.

A lot of people have asked what is the difference between lying on the beach and being exposed to this silica sand? The answer is quite simple – in a blasting application the silica sand is blasted at 400mph and pulverized into dust which makes its way into your lungs and breathing passages

Many health departments state that if silica sand is to be used, the blast room should be completely swept clean before the door is opened, to stop dust entering other workplaces. Any workers in the vicinity should also wear supplied air respirators and all blasters should shower and leave contaminated clothing at the workplace – (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Case studies

  1. During an investigation after a worker death in 1992 the Ohio Department of Health discovered the following:
    1. An air sample inside the blasting room had 500 times the NIOSH REL for crystalline silica.
    2. An air sample immediately outside the blasting room contained 8 times the NIOSH REL.
  2. A study from 2011 discovered sandblasting new blue jeans to make them look "distressed" killed a number of young Turkish textile workers before the practice was outlawed. The study, published in Chest, a medical journal for lung specialists, was done by doctors at a hospital for thoracic diseases in Istanbul.

They followed 32 male textile workers who came to their hospital with breathing problems between 2001 and 2009. That year, after news reports of a "silicosis epidemic," Turkish health authorities banned sandblasting denim. The men were young, with a mean age of 31. Most were previously healthy; they were screened to rule out damage from tuberculosis or smoking. They had worked a mean of 66 hours a week for a little over two years each, mostly at small sandblasting shops with fewer than 10 workers.

Six of the workers died, and 16 others had disabling lung damage from breathing the fine sand. The researchers calculated that a typical worker with silicosis had only a 69 percent chance of surviving five years. Although more former sandblasters will suffer lung deterioration, the new ban increased awareness and "may prevent new silicosis cases in Turkey," the authors wrote.

Since the blasting serves no purpose other than to satisfy fashion whims, the scientists called for a global campaign against it.

Other references

Silicosis: a slow death "It ain't much of a life" says stricken sandblaster, 47. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has concluded that "crystalline silica inhaled in the form of quartz or cristobalite from occupational sources is carcinogenic (cancer causing) to humans (Group 1)."

The U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration, states that, "the most severe worker exposures to crystalline silica results from sandblasting."

Information from NIOSH – National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health states that "the use of crystalline silica was banned for most blast-cleaning operations in Great Britain in 1950 (Factories Act of 1949) and in other European countries in 1966. In 1974, NIOSH recommended that silica sand be prohibited for use as an abrasive blasting material and that less hazardous materials be substituted for silica sand during abrasive blasting."

In an article circa 1995, the US Geological Survey (an unbiased, multi-disciplinary science organization) stated that "California, Louisiana, Ohio, Utah, the Port of Houston, and the U.S. Navy have banned sandblast products with more than 1% silica." Remember that silica sand contains about 90% to 95% crystalline silica!

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