There is a push for a ban to be considered on popular artificial stone benchtops amid a rising rate of potentially deadly illness among the nation’s tradies.
Artificial or engineered stone benchtops have seen a rise in popularity in Australian homes as a cheap and attractive alternative to marble or granite.
The National Dust Diseases Taskforce says the home renovation trend has coincided with rising rates of silicosis among construction workers — an incurable and potentially deadly lung disease associated with breathing in dangerous silica fibres during the cutting, polishing and grinding of the stone.
Many of those who are diagnosed with the disease, including stonemasons, are aged as young as their 20s and 30s.
The latest meeting of the task force saw members agree on a ban of artificial stone if other measures to protect tradies’ safely fail.
“Members agreed that a product ban on engineered stone should remain an option for consideration, particularly if strengthened regulations and enforcement activities fail to prevent new cases of silicosis in this industry, or attempts at licensing fail, noting the requirement for strong data and evidence to underpin such a decision,” communique from the most recent task force meeting said.
Members also discussed the merits of a national licensing framework in the industry with the aim of preventing new cases, and endorsed a proposed scope for a national registry.
The task force has received submissions from medical professionals, unions, workplace safety experts, the Cancer Council and other health groups arguing for enhanced safety measures.
“We believe that large numbers of consumers would be horrified with the thought that an essentially decorative product in their kitchen could have led to serious illness and death,” law firm Maurice Blackburn said in its submission to the task force, according to Nine newspapers.
However, in its submission to the task force, the NSW government argued “effective risk controls” could eliminate danger in lieu of a ban.
It pointed out dry cutting had been banned in NSW, as well as Queensland and Victoria, as well as a new, lower standard for the level of silica dust considered safe in the workplace, and a new national code of practice.
Industry figured told the task force a ban on artificial stone benchtops would result in widespread job losses without a viable alternative for consumers.
A final report by the task force is set to be handed down in June.
The number of global deaths each year from silicosis — which has been traditionally associated with the mining industry — is dropping but Australian legal and medical experts say there has been an alarming spike in new local cases of the disease that’s been attributed to occupational exposure by tradies working with artificial stone for benchtops.
Australian stonemasons affected by the disease are leading a class action against manufacturers.
Former Melbourne stonemason Cameron Harper told news.com.au he was diagnosed with silicosis in 2015 after developing a cough first thought to be a chest infection.
“It came as a big shock,” he said in 2017.
“Since I got diagnosed, my illness has actually gotten worse. There’s more scarring showing up on my lungs.
“It is a bit of a mystery illness. You don’t really know how it’s going to progress.”
Mr Harper said he spent up to 50 hours a week inhaling the dust as he engineered stone products.
“I’d be making bench tops for kitchens and bathrooms, and doing a lot of dry cutting and a bit of polishing,” he said.
“When I changed companies in 2015, there (was) a lack of care. I was there for a year, and I didn’t have the proper PPE (personal protective equipment) so I got acute silicosis from extremely large levels of dust exposure.”
Artificial stone has only been available in Australia since the early 2000s and is made by crushing silica containing rock to a fine consistency, and mixing it with an adhesive to harden it.
It contains up to 95 per cent silica, compared to less than 40 per cent silica in natural stone.
Another former stonemason, Kyle Goodwin, told news.com.au in 2019 how his “world came crumbling down” after medical tests confirmed he had silicosis, which many of his young colleagues had already been diagnosed with.
The former tradie said artificial stone benchtops were in huge demand when he started his apprenticeship as a teenager.
“There was a lot of work. Everyone from young renovators to big developers wanted stone benchtops in their kitchens — still do,” he said.
“The dust was heavy, it was thick, and it was everywhere. My car seat and my couch, if you hit them there would be a cloud of dust. It followed you everywhere. It was so fine you couldn’t get away from it.
“We were all concerned about it, but you know what it’s like as a young bloke doing your apprenticeship — you don’t know any better.”
Mr Goodwin said he had already left the industry when he was diagnosed and told he would need a lung transplant in eight years.
“The mental toll is the biggest,” he said. “The mental toll is massive.
“You question every moment, every time you start coughing or anytime you’re out of breath. Straight away it’s on your mind, is this the disease?
“For me, there is no compensation. For me, I just want to see things change so another generation doesn’t go through this.”