OBJECTIVES: The diagnostic implications of finding non-fibrous inorganic particles in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid has not been fully assessed. The aim of this study has been to measure the silica and non-fibrous silicates in BAL fluid from populations with different exposures to inorganic dust, and to find whether such measurement is useful for diagnostic purposes. MATERIALS AND METHODS: BAL samples from 19 subjects with only environmental exposure to inorganic dust (group A, mean (SD) age 50.7 (15.2)), 23 subjects with normal chest x ray films exposed to silica or silicates at work (group B, mean (SD) age 52.0 (12.4)), and 15 subjects with a previous diagnosis of silicosis (group C, mean (SD) age 68.0 (6.5)) were studied. Absolute and relative cell counts were found, and the samples were prepared for microanalysis by electron microscopy (EM). Firstly, semiquantitative x ray microanalysis was performed to find the level of silicon (Si) (peak/background Si) and this was followed by microanalysis of individual particles by EM. Variables related to the level of Si detected were assessed with multivariate analysis. RESULTS: Detected levels were higher in group B (2.09, 95% confidence interval (95% CI) 1.56 to 2.82) and C (1.50, 95% CI 1.07 to 2.12) than in group A (0.87, 95% CI 0.66 to 1.16) (P < 0.05, Dunett t test). A first multivariate analysis showed that exposure to silica or silicates was the only determinant of the level of Si expressed as log peak/background Si, when adjusted for age, sex, smoking habit, and cell count. A second multivariate analysis with microanalysis of individual particles as an independent variable showed the silica count to be the main predictor of detected concentration of Si. Silica and non-aluminium silicates together explain 55.5% (R2) of the variation in detected levels of Si. CONCLUSIONS: Detected levels of Si in BAL fluid depend on silica count and are higher in subjects with exposure to inorganic dust at work, but will not discriminate between exposed subjects with and without silicosis. Because semiquantitative x ray microanalysis does not accurately define exposure to non-silica inorganic particles, this measurement must be followed by EM microanalysis of individual particles in most cases, especially when exposure to silicates or metal dust is suspected.
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