In 2012 my wife and I renovated our house – a two-story extension with a brand new kitchen. Inspired by various TV shows and magazines on the topic of renovation, we opted for an elegant stone island bench as the focal point for the kitchen.
I knew the table material was some kind of stone. You can choose almost any color and it costs a lot less than marble. But I didn’t know much else and didn’t ask any questions. As a respiratory doctor who has diagnosed silicosis in numerous workers over the past four years, I regret my ignorance.
Like many Australians who have renovated or built homes since the early 2000s, we went with engineered stone (also known as engineering or reconstituted stone or quartz).
In 2015, after it was reported that the first Australian worker in the flagstone industry was suffering from severe silicosis, I was amazed to find that artificial stone contains up to 95% crystalline silica.
Inhaling crystalline quartz dust is one of the most well-known causes of lung diseases, including silicosis and lung cancer. The harmful effects of exposure to silica were identified while the damage caused by cigarettes and asbestos was still being discussed. Australians’ affinity for artificial stone countertops has led to a major comeback of silicosis in recent years.
New research in Victoria shows the extent of silicosis among workers in the flagstone industry.
Read more: Explainer: What Is Silicosis And Why Is This Ancient Lung Disease Making A Comeback?
What is Silicosis?
Silicosis is a preventable disease characterized by scars on the lungs called pulmonary fibrosis.
Over time, inhaling tiny particles of quartz dust triggers an inflammatory response that causes small growths called nodules to accumulate on the lungs. These nodules can grow and clump together, making the lungs stiffer and preventing the passage of oxygen into the blood.
In the early stages of the disease, a person can be fine. Symptoms of silicosis can include coughing, shortness of breath, and tiredness. In general, the more prevalent the disease is in the lungs, the more trouble a person has with breathing.
There is currently no cure. In severe cases, a lung transplant may be the only option, and the disease can be fatal.
However, researchers from Brisbane recently showed early but promising results from a study in which they leached silica from a small number of lungs in people with silicosis.
The way to reform
Artisans in the flagstone industry cut flagstones and use hand-held chainsaws and grinders to shape holes for sinks and stovetops. This creates crystalline quartz dust from the stone, which can be released into the air.
The use of water in this process can significantly reduce dust generation, but until recently dry processing of artificial stone was ubiquitous in the industry. Nearly 70% of workers with silicosis in Victoria reported having spent more than half of their working hours in a dry-processing environment.
Stone countertop workers suffering from silicosis have requested poor working conditions in recent years, including dry cutting with inadequate protection such as effective ventilation and appropriate respirators.
Queensland became the first state to ban dry cutting in 2018. Victoria followed in 2019 and New South Wales in 2020.
It’s too early to assess whether these changes have affected the prevalence of silicosis, but hopefully they will make a difference.
Around the time the Victorian government rolled out the ban, it launched an enforcement flash in high-risk workplaces, while WorkSafe Victoria rolled out a free screening program for the estimated 1,400 flagstone workers across the state.
The Monash Center for Occupational and Environmental Health recently released a report detailing the results of the first year of the screening program. 18% of the first 324 workers to complete the exams were diagnosed with silicosis.
We saw similar results in Queensland, where by February 2021 the government had examined 1,053 stonemasons who had been exposed to crystalline quartz dust from engineered stone. Silicosis was diagnosed in 223 (or 21%), including 32 with the most severe form called progressive massive fibrosis.
According to the Monash report, workers in Victoria are diagnosed with silicosis as young as 41 years old. The average working time in the flagstone industry was 14 years at the time of diagnosis and the shortest only three years, which is due to an extremely high level of silica exposure to dust.
We published some earlier results of this research project in occupational and environmental medicine late last year. However, this latest data has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, which means it has not been subjected to the same scrutiny as other published research.
A bigger problem
Failure to protect workers from exposure to silica goes well beyond the flagstone industry.
It is estimated that around 3.7% of Australian workers are exposed to high levels of silica at work, and we also see workers in other industries, such as: B. quarrying, with silicosis.
About 59% of the earth’s crust consists of silica. As a result, it is not possible to remove silica in certain workplaces such as mines and quarries.
In these circumstances exposure must be identified and strictly controlled to prevent dust generation, worker isolation from dust and effective ventilation. When silica cannot be removed from a workplace, constant vigilance and evaluation of control strategies are essential.
Read More: Engineered Stone Benchtops Are Killing Our Trades. Here’s why a ban is the only answer
But when it comes to the choice of material for your kitchen countertop, it’s hard to argue that getting rid of high silica artificial stone is not an option. There are many other materials that are suitable for countertops that contain little or no silica, such as wood, laminate, steel, or marble.
Compared to other countries, Australian consumers have developed a particular preference for artificial stone, which makes up 45% of the table market here, but only 14% in the USA.
Worker lung health seems like an odd thing when designing a kitchen. However, increased awareness of this issue is critical to driving change.