Crystalline silica may act as an immune adjuvant to increase inflammation and antibody production, and findings of occupational cohort studies suggest that silica exposure may be a risk factor for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). We undertook this population-based study to examine the association between occupational silica exposure and SLE in the southeastern US.
SLE patients (n = 265; diagnosed between January 1, 1995 and July 31, 1999) were recruited from 4 university rheumatology practices and 30 community-based rheumatologists in 60 contiguous counties. Controls (n = 355), frequency-matched to patients by age, sex, and state of residence, were randomly selected from driver's license registries. The mean age of the patients at diagnosis was 39 years; 91% were women and 60% were African American. Detailed occupational and farming histories were collected by in-person interviews. Silica exposure was determined through blinded assessment of job histories by 3 industrial hygienists, and potential medium- or high-level exposures were confirmed through followup telephone interviews. Odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (95% CIs) were estimated by logistic regression.
More patients (19%) than controls (8%) had a history of medium- or high-level silica exposure from farming or trades. We observed an association between silica and SLE (medium exposure OR 2.1 [95% CI 1.1–4.0], high exposure OR 4.6 [95% CI 1.4–15.4]) that was seen in separate analyses by sex, race, and at different levels of education.
These results suggest that crystalline silica exposure may promote the development of SLE in some individuals. Additional research is recommended in other populations, using study designs that minimize potential selection bias and maximize the quality of exposure assessment.