Hard living: what does concrete do to our bodies?

The building material has improved some aspects of public health, but it is also linked to a host of respiratory and musculoskeletal problems

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Michael has worked with concrete for 27 years. His job involves “breaking out” walls and floors, mixing concrete, injection work and drilling. These days, he suffers from chronic breathlessness, has had a cough for around three years and struggles to walk long distances. It is suspected that an emphysema-like condition called silicosis is to blame. Thanks to early-onset arthritis, he’s had both knees replaced. He’s 49.

Though it might not be obvious to the millions of people who spend their days surrounded by this apparently innocuous material, concrete costs the health – and often the lives – of thousands of construction workers every year. The chief culprit is silica dust, which hangs in the air on building sites. Without proper protection, it can, over many years in the trade, scar the lungs and lead to silicosis, which is associated with chronic wheezing, arthritis, cancer and reduced life expectancy.

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