The mortality of 724 subjects with silicosis, first diagnosed in 1964-70 in the Sardinia region of Italy, was followed up through to 31 December 1987. Smoking, occupational history, chest x ray films, and data on lung function were available from clinical records for each member of the cohort. The overall cohort accounted for 10,956.5 person-years. The standardised mortality ratios (SMRs) for selected causes of death (International Classification of Diseases (ICD) eighth revision) were based on the age specific regional death rates for each calendar year. An excess of deaths for all causes (SMR = 1.40) was found, mainly due to chronic obstructive lung disease, silicosis, and tuberculosis with an upward trend of the SMR with increasing severity of the International Labour Office (ILO) radiological categories. Twenty two subjects died from lung cancer (SMR = 1.29, 95% confidence interval (95% CI) = 0.8-2.0). The risk increased after a 10 and 15 year latency but the SMR never reached statistical significance. No correlation was found between lung cancer and severity of the radiological category, the type of silica (coal or metalliferous mines, quarries etc), or the degree of exposure to silica dust. A significant excess of deaths from lung cancer was found among heavy smokers (SMR = 4.11) and subjects with airflow obstruction (SMR = 2.83). A nested case-control study was planned to investigate whether the association between lung cancer and airway obstruction was due to confounding by smoking. No association was found with the ILO categories of silicosis or the estimated cumulative exposure to silica. The risk estimate for lung cancer by airflow obstruction after adjusting by cigarette consumption was 2.86 for a mild impairment and 7.23 for a severe obstruction. The results do not show any clear association between exposure to silica, severity of silicosis, and mortality from lung cancer. Other environmental or individual factors may act as confounders in the association between silicosis and lung cancer. Among them, attention should be given to chronic airways obstruction as an independent risk factor for lung cancer in patients with silicosis.
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