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Silicosis: Why a Ban on Engineered Stone Benchtops Is Needed to Save Lives

Cutting artificial stone for kitchen benchtops and other products may increase the risk of fatal lung disease.

Hospitals around Australia have seen a rise in new cases of silicosis, a disease often linked to exposure to hazardous dust when manufacturing stone benchtops.

As with the ban on asbestos-containing materials in the 20th century, implementing a ban on engineered stone benchtops may help save Australian lives.

What Is Silicosis?

Silicosis is a deadly lung disease caused by breathing in small pieces of silica. Silica is a mineral found in natural materials, including sand, rock, and ore. When these materials are cut, ground, or blasted, the dust contains varying amounts of silica.

Silica dust damages the lining of the lungs and causes scarring. Severe scarring makes it difficult to breathe and may result in more severe symptoms, such as chest pain and coughing.

Workers may develop silicosis within a few weeks or several decades after the exposure. There are three types of silicosis:

  1. Acute
  2. Chronic
  3. Accelerated

Acute silicosis leads to weight loss and fatigue within several weeks or years of exposure. Chronic silicosis occurs 10 to 30 years later and is more likely to cause extensive scarring and damage to the lungs. Accelerated silicosis develops within a decade of exposure to high levels of silica dust.

No matter the type of silicosis, the scarring can become debilitating and potentially fatal.

The dangers of inhaling silica dust are widely known. In fact, industries began implementing control measures to reduce the risk of exposure in the 1930s.

Almost 100 years later, Australia and other countries have strict regulations for activities that generate silica dust. These activities include grinding, blasting, or cutting concrete or rock.

The use of powerful extraction fans, water spray systems, and respirators helped severely reduce the prevalence of silicosis. Unfortunately, the deadly disease is starting to reappear with greater frequency.

Artificial Stone Contains More Silica

Many of the recent cases of silicosis seem to come from industries involved in cutting artificial stone. Compared to natural stone, the artificial stone may contain over twice the amount of silica.

Cutting and grinding artificial stone to create benchtops increases the risk of exposure to silica dust. Reports indicate 260 new cases of silicosis across Australia in the past couple of years, with 166 cases in Queensland.

The surge was first identified 12 months ago in Queensland. An alarming number of workers were diagnosed with silicosis after exposure to dust when working with engineered stone kitchen benchtops.

Engineered stone is a mixture of resin and 94% to 95% quartz. It is a more cost-effective material compared to natural stone with comparable results, making it a popular choice in kitchens throughout Australia.

Quartz is another name for silica. Cutting or grinding the artificial stone releases microscopic crystalline silica particles. It only takes a small amount of the particles to create a potential health hazard and an increased risk of silicosis.

Current Control Measures for Reducing Exposure

As mentioned, the cutting or grinding of stone or concrete involves a variety of regulations, including WHS Act regulations and industry standards.

Workers often wear respiratory gear. Vacuums and wet cutting help remove dust from the environment. However, these solutions do not always reduce the levels of silica dust to nonhazardous levels.

The effectiveness of the required control measures is also limited due to regulatory compliance. Not all companies strictly follow regulations for protecting workers from exposure. When workers identify potential hazards, they do not always feel comfortable reporting the issue.

During an audit of two Gold Coast businesses, specialists found high levels of dust, despite the company using most of the recommended safety techniques. One of the businesses also failed to use an adequate vacuum for removing dust.

Without stricter enforcement of health and safety regulations, Australia may continue to see a rise in silicosis diagnoses. The surge of new cases has led many people to call for a complete ban on engineered stone benchtops.

The current safety recommendations skip the first hierarchy of control. The most effective control measure is the removal of the hazard. By replacing the artificial stone with another material, companies can reduce exposure to silica dust.

Is a Ban on Artificial Stone Possible?

Several organisations are working to promote a ban on artificial stone. However, a complete ban is not easy to implement. It requires government regulation and industry-wide adoption.

Artificial stone is widely used to cost-effectively produce kitchen benchtops. Banning the material would have a major impact on the market. However, this would not be the first time that the Australian government has banned a widely used hazardous material.

Australia started regulating the use of asbestos products in the 1970s and banned the material in 2003. Workers now need to complete asbestos removal training to safely remove the material.

As with silica dust, industries were aware of the danger of asbestos particles for many decades. Inhaling asbestos fibres also causes scarring in the lungs. Asbestosis directly contributed to the death of thousands of workers before the government banned asbestos products.

Companies adapted to the asbestos ban and found suitable alternatives. The same process can happen with artificial stone. Instead of using engineered stone containing high levels of silica, companies can use natural stone or stone made from recycled glass.

Increasing public awareness of the dangers of silica exposure may also help reduce demand for engineered stone benchtops.

Summary

In the end, silicosis remains a current threat to thousands of workers throughout Australia. A total ban may not occur, but consumers and businesses can help reduce exposure by selecting other materials for their kitchen counters.

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