Is Silica the New Asbestos For Stonemasons?

Asbestos is infamous for being an occupational hazard, the inhalation of which can cause long term lung conditions such as asbestosis and cancer. Since the 1970s, it has been publicly recognised as a health hazard and banned from use and mining in most countries. Today, its use is limited and regulated. However, silicon dioxide, most commonly known as silica, is quickly becoming known as the new asbestos.

Where is silica found?

Silica can be found in nature in sand, quartz, and a number of living organisms. It is used for things such as food production, cosmetics, and toothpaste. However, a whopping 95% of silica usage is made up for in the construction industry, where stonemasons use the substance every day in its crystalline form. Silica in this state presents itself as dust that is 100 times smaller than a grain of sand. Crystalline silica, when inhaled, is toxic to the body. While oral ingestion is non-toxic, breathing in the substance can lead to a number of health problems, namely lung cancer, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, and silicosis.

How Does Silica Affect Stonemasons?

Benchtop work done by stonemasons typically makes use of materials that are very high in their silica content. Silica can be found in almost all of the materials needed to make benchtops: stone, rock, concrete, bricks, and tiles all contain the substance. It can also be found in both artificial and natural stone. However, the former contains more than 90% silica while the latter contains between 25 and 40%. During the process of cutting and installing benchtops, the crystalline silica found in these materials becomes airborne and is inhaled by the workers. This is also true in the case of those working on hydraulic fracturing. What this inhalation does is lodge the dust in the lungs and irritate the tissue, thus leading to scarring, inflammation, and other health issues.

Since 1985, 15 workers have died from silicosis contracted during work in the benchtop industry. Silicosis claims, as well as claims for silica-related conditions, are gaining in number across Australia. In 2011, it was estimated that about 587,000 Australians were exposed to crystalline silica in their workplace and that at least 5,700 of these workers would develop lung cancer at some stage in their lives.

What is Being Done About Silica Products?

Authorities and industries alike are responsible for dealing with the many problems caused by silica inhalation. Safe Work Australia, the national body responsible for health and safety policies in the workplace, has halved the silica dust exposure limit, now only allowing 0.05 milligrams per cubic metre over a shift of 8 hours. However, this limit is yet to be ratified and will take up to 3 years to come into play. The Australian government has put a new $5m national dust diseases task force into place. Recently, this task force has begun working on a prevention, identification, control and management plan, to try and counteract the frequency of these dust diseases, and to work out how best to catch it early on. Law firm Slater and Gordon is in the process of mounting a class action suit against manufacturers. At Maurice Blackburn law firm, the principal lawyer for dust diseases, Jonathan Walsh, has spoken about the benefit that importation bans may have, stating that he believes “products will be created in order to replace those silica-based products that are coming in.” However, many industry groups propose that the best way to counteract these problems is to put safe work practices into place, stating the following:

“Silicosis is preventable – what we are seeing now is the re-emergence of an old disease reflecting inadequate work health and safety practices with a comparatively new material. Work practices that allow the safe use of engineered stone include wet cutting, the use of local exhaust ventilation, on-tool extraction and respirators to ensure the protection of worker health.”

What Can We, As Consumers, Do To Help?

Because natural stone is so much lower in silica content than artificial stone, we as consumers can ensure that we order natural stone products. This, in turn, will lower exposure levels that stonemasons are subjected to.

Otherwise, being informed of your prospective suppliers’ stance on exposure levels and safety practices can go a long way, so make sure to ask them about their safety measures.