OBJECTIVE--Occupational exposure to silica dust is associated with significant impairment of lung function. The present study investigates which pathological changes in the lung are associated with impairment of lung function in silica dust exposed workers who were life-long non-smokers. METHODS--242 South African white gold miners who were lifelong non-smokers and who had a necropsy at death were studied. The pathological features identified at necropsy were the degree and type of emphysema, the presence of airway disease, and the degree of silicosis in the lung parenchyma and pleura. These features were related to lung function tests done a few years before death, to type of impairment (obstructive or restrictive), and to cumulative silica dust exposure. RESULTS--The degree of emphysema found at necropsy was not associated with a statistically significant impairment of lung function or with dust exposure. The degree of silicosis in the lung parenchyma and the large airways disease (based on mucus gland hyperplasia) were associated with a statistically significant impairment of lung function. The large airway disease was, however, not positively associated with dust exposure or silicosis. In miners with a moderate or a higher degree of limitation of airflow the main findings were silicosis, heart disease, and obesity. The presence of small airways disease could not be established from the necropsy material. CONCLUSION--The results indicate that the level of exposure to silica dust to which these miners were exposed, without a confounding effect of tobacco smoking, is not associated with a degree of emphysema that would cause a statistically significant impairment of lung function. Silicosis of the lung parenchyma was associated with loss of lung function. Other factors that may play a part in impairment of lung function in these miners are obesity and heart disease.