Silicosis – Is the New ‘Death Dust’ Worse Than Asbestos?

Over the past few decades, world governments and health regulators have begun to fully understand the health consequences of using asbestos in the workplace. Individuals who used asbestos frequently were often diagnosed with large amounts of mesothelioma, asbestosis and other severe or fatal lung conditions.

Asbestos, which consists of natural forming minerals that appear as fibres, often lodges itself in the lungs of those who are exposed to it.

Australia and many other countries are still experiencing the aftershocks of the asbestos crisis. While there was suspicion in the early 20th Century of asbestos-related problems, the full scale of the issue was not adequately realised until the 1980s. The late onset of the disease means that many people are still developing lung conditions from past exposure.

Unfortunately, it seems there is another building material that has come to the attention of authorities. Silica, often used in stonemasonry work, is now thought to cause severe lung damage and death.


What is Silicosis and What Causes It?


The reality is that silicosis has been around for a long time. However, a large number of outbreaks in Australia have only recently occurred. In 2013, there were over 45,000 worldwide deaths related to silicosis.

Silicosis is a lung disease that is caused by exposure to silica — a material often found in various building works and stonemasonry. For this reason, the condition is highly prevalent in workers who have exposure to these workplace substances and materials.

While silica enters the lungs in the form of light dust, it is not harmless at all. It lodges itself in the lungs and creates further issues over time. The silica usually creates legions in the upper parts of the lungs. After these legions progress, silicosis may form.

Silicosis can result in a wide variety of different side effects, including cough, fever, shortness of breath, a blue skin tone and more. In some cases, it results in the death of the individual who suffers from the disease.

While health and safety regulations in many third-world countries result in overexposure to silica, many Western nations have made strident efforts to reduce the chances of exposure in workshops and building sites. Unfortunately, it appears that not all these efforts have been carried out properly in the workplace. The risk of developing silicosis still remains.

Australia is now said to be dealing with a significant epidemic involving silicosis. The impacts seem to be already taking their toll on the Australian population in many areas of the country.


Who Has Been Affected So Far?


Many reports are coming from Queensland that indicate the severity of the situation on Australia’s hands. It appears that 98 people have been diagnosed with the disease in Queensland. Of these 98 patients, around 15 of them are now thought to be critical.

There are even reports of a man as young as 36 who now has silicosis. The apparent severity of the problem has blown the door wide open for health and safety regulators.

It is not known how extensive the issue is throughout the rest of the country, but it is clear that the problem isn’t just present in the Northeast. One of the primary reasons the issue has become so critical is because silicosis appears to be impacting people in a much shorter timeframe.

The stress on the health system will be considerable — in many cases, individuals may have to receive a lung transplant to have a chance of surviving the disease.

With asbestos, the results can take decades to manifest as health problems. This means that people are typically able to reach the end of their working careers before they’re diagnosed with the deadly disease. For those who are unable to see the end of their working age, the impact is also felt throughout the family. The financial and psychological stress for these young people can be overwhelming.

There are fears that Australia may see a full-blown epidemic of the problem in the near future. With such a little timeframe between exposure and ill effects, a severe burden may be placed on the health system.

No matter how long this takes, one thing is for sure — the full damage of this issue may be much more extensive.


What is Being Done to Stop the Problem?


In fairness to the government, authorities have been quick to react to the problem. Investigations carried out determined that proper health and safety procedures had not been followed in many workplaces. This has resulted in undue exposure for a large group of workers.

An audit was carried out by the Queensland government which indicated over 550 instances in which procedures were not properly followed. If site health and safety procedures are followed correctly, the chance of harmful exposure is largely reduced. Unfortunately, it appears that many cases may have been preventable if workspaces had been following the correct protocols.

The Queensland government has now referred 800 stonemasons see a doctor for medical assessment. Authorities want to try and catch the condition early, even though it may not go a long way in preventing some severe side effects.

The cost of the testing is drastic. At present, it is thought to be around $1.5m in total. Each test costs around $2,000, so the numbers can add up quickly. There doesn’t appear to be an indication that the numbers will slow down anytime soon.

There will likely need to be wide-scale testing done in other states around the country.

Health officials appear worried that this may have severe consequences for the Australian health system’s capacity.


A Serious Cause for Concern


To prevent silicosis and asbestosis issues from further developing in the future, regulators and business owners must take the risk of these materials exceptionally seriously.

Licensed asbestos removal, carried out by professionals in the industry, is one of the best ways to reduce exposure to the harmful substance.

For silica and other substances, environmental remediation and other services may be required to help reduce further exposure to harmful materials.