Current approaches for characterizing retained lung dust using pathologists' qualitative assessment or scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive spectroscopy (SEM/EDS) have limitations.


To explore polarized light microscopy coupled with image-processing software, termed quantitative microscopy–particulate matter (QM-PM), as a tool to characterize in situ dust in lung tissue of US coal miners with progressive massive fibrosis.


We developed a standardized protocol using microscopy images to characterize the in situ burden of birefringent crystalline silica/silicate particles (mineral density) and carbonaceous particles (pigment fraction). Mineral density and pigment fraction were compared with pathologists' qualitative assessments and SEM/EDS analyses. Particle features were compared between historical (born before 1930) and contemporary coal miners, who likely had different exposures following changes in mining technology.


Lung tissue samples from 85 coal miners (62 historical and 23 contemporary) and 10 healthy controls were analyzed using QM-PM. Mineral density and pigment fraction measurements with QM-PM were comparable to consensus pathologists' scoring and SEM/EDS analyses. Contemporary miners had greater mineral density than historical miners (186 456 versus 63 727/mm3; P = .02) and controls (4542/mm3), consistent with higher amounts of silica/silicate dust. Contemporary and historical miners had similar particle sizes (median area, 1.00 versus 1.14 μm2; P = .46) and birefringence under polarized light (median grayscale brightness: 80.9 versus 87.6; P = .29).


QM-PM reliably characterizes in situ silica/silicate and carbonaceous particles in a reproducible, automated, accessible, and time/cost/labor-efficient manner, and shows promise as a tool for understanding occupational lung pathology and targeting exposure controls.

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Author notes

Cohen and Rose are co–senior authors.

This work was funded by grants T42OH009229 (CDC/NIOSH Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center), 2T32HL007085-46 (NIH/NHLBI fellowship training program), the Reuben M. Cherniack fellowship award at National Jewish Health, and FC820-59 (Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health).

Go provides expert witness testimony in workers' compensation cases. The other authors have no relevant financial interest in the products or companies described in this article.

Some of the results of this study were previously reported in the form of an abstract/poster at the American Thoracic Society International Conference; May 16, 2022; San Francisco, California.

Competing Interests

Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US government.