Engineered stone countertops cause silicosis and lung cancer

The common building material has been compared to the “new asbestos” despite being used in kitchens across the country, putting more than 275,000 Australian traditions at risk of cancer and lung disease.

Engineered stone countertops laced with deadly silica cause silicosis, an incurable work-related lung disease.

Over 70 cases are in Australian courts. The workers, many of whom are in oxygen tanks or in need of lung transplants, say they were never warned of how dangerous the material they were working with could be.

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Commonly used in countertops as a cheaper alternative to marble and granite, engineered stone poses no danger to those living in the home once it is installed.

However, to be safe in the workplace, workers wearing a full hazmat suit must cut it while wet.

Unfortunately, that’s not how many bricklayers work – especially before 2018, when silica exposure was known, but the first Australian silicosis patient had yet to show up.

Artificial stone contains up to 95 percent crystalline silica, the dust of which is very toxic. When inhaled in large amounts, it can cause a variety of deadly diseases, including silicosis, autoimmune diseases, lung cancer, kidney disease, and lung infections.

Marble, on the other hand, contains only two percent silica. Granite contains 10 to 50 percent.

A revealing a quarter of a million traditions

A study by Curtin University found that more than 275,000 workers, mostly tradesmen, were exposed to high levels of carcinogenic dust. The study predicts up to 103,000 of them will be diagnosed with silicosis.

Silicosis is the oldest recorded occupational lung disease, and the number of cases is only increasing. The explosion of cases over the past 20 years coincides with the entry of engineered stone into the Australian market, as well as a record number of government-led new construction projects.

More than 70 silicosis cases have been filed in Victoria and Queensland, with several more in other states.

Many of the masons are suing their employers for failing to provide safe working conditions. Some are also targeting manufacturers of the product, including industrial titanium Caesarstone.

One of those stonemasons was father-of-two Ken Parker, who was diagnosed with silicosis in 2019 and had a life expectancy of five to ten years.

Mr Parker, who has worked for 18 years at the factory in western Sydney, said: Nine newspapers he was never warned about the dangers of the product.

“I used to tell people it was like working in hell,” he said.

“You can’t see more than a couple of feet in front of you because of the dust. It’s in your clothes, in your skin, in your eyes, in your car, you take it home with you. It’s just everywhere.”

Mr. Parker, who has reached a confidential settlement on his case, insists that until a whistleblower spoke up in 2018, industry leaders argued that artificial stone was safer.

Caesarstone’s latest annual report revealed that in December 2021, the industry giant was involved in 37 lawsuits related to silicosis claims in Australia.

As of September 2002, the company’s Australian insurer stopped covering newly diagnosed claims related to silicosis. Caesarstone Australia now pays legal costs from its income.

Caesarstone insists the problem isn’t with their product, but with mishandling.

Since the 1990s, the company has included silicosis risk warning labels on its safety data sheets, followed by slab warning labels in 2010 and the “comprehensive stone master” online learning platform in 2020, the company said.

“Artificial stone is completely safe for consumers when installed, while silica only poses a safety hazard to workers if the stone is mishandled,” Caesarstone said in a statement.

“Historically, the biggest challenge has been for manufacturers to follow the rules and enforce those rules. This is the role of employers and OSH regulators.”

Alleged cover-up

According to joint investigation by 60 Minutes, The Age and Sydney Morning Heraldabout the alleged cover-up.

Caesarstone’s Spanish rival Cosentino was found guilty of negligence by a Spanish court earlier this month. The manufacturer’s owner was given a six-month suspended sentence after he admitted to covering up the dangers of the product, Reuters reported.

In Australia, a 36-year-old mason from Queensland who had previously spoken of silicosis died in 2019, prompting action by the federal government.

A few weeks after Anthony White’s death, the government created a national dust disease task force tasked with developing an approach to control dust diseases, including silicosis.

Some reforms have been made, but four years later there is still no national registry or requirement to control the air in workplaces where artificial stone is used.

Instead, SafeWork NSW issues “improvement notices” when silica dust is found on restrooms, canteens, or office benches, or if workers are found without proper protective gear or training. Notifications allow workplaces to resolve the issue in a timely manner and without closing.

SafeWork NSW said it visited about 2,100 silica-related jobs and issued 1,300 such notices. About 900 of them were associated with silica.

In Channel 9’s images of engineered stone factories, jobs are covered in layers of silica that look like poisonous snow.

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Originally published as Artificial stone: the “new asbestos” that is killing Australian traditions