Silicosis Scare Hits Australia, Calls for Bans

As of December 2019, confirmed cases of silicosis among countertop and construction workers rose to 260 across Australia, where countertops are known as benchtops, and some estimates have the cases at 350. The Daily Mail reports that Caesarstone was denied insurance coverage because of the silica content of its products, and some victims and lawmakers are calling for a ban of all quartz surfacing.

Because the cases have more than tripled over the last quarter of 2019 in Queensland, ABC News reports, silica dust is now more toxic than asbestos in Australia. According to Dr. Graeme Edwards, silica dust is five to six times more toxic than asbestos.

“Now that we’ve got bigger numbers, that figure is around 20 to 25 percent. So, between one in four and one in five people who’ve had extended exposure,” stated Edwards, speaking on the toxicity level. “It’s crudely of the order of five to six times more potent a problem.” Asbestos sits at 6 percent toxicity in Australia.

Even though Edwards believes silica is highly toxic, he does not support a total ban of materials including it because there is still insufficient evidence and, unlike asbestos, there are safe ways to handle silica. Laws are already in place to protect workers in Australia, but the problem is with enforcement.

“It is the failings of various parts of the system to apply the law that already exists,” said Edwards. “Every single case of silicosis is prima facie evidence of system failure. There was legislation already in existence to manage it but, clearly, it failed the workers of Australia.”

Braden Barnes, 34, is just one of those who has been newly diagnosed with silicosis in Australia, and he is outspoken in his support to ban products containing silica. His case of silicosis is so bad that he is no longer able to work after being in the business for more than a decade. In 2014, his illness was misdiagnosed, so he continued to work in the countertop fabrication industry.

“I kept going for a couple of years because we were starting to build a house, we just had a newborn,” said Barnes. “I know six of my friends that are being diagnosed. I know a few more that are in denial. They’ve built their life around the money they earn, so they don’t even want to get checked.”

One Australian law firm, Slater and Gordon, tells the Daily Mail that they have since a sharp spike in reports from countertop and construction workers that have now been diagnosed with silicosis.

“Under Australian law, manufacturers of products owe duties to consumers and end-users of these products to ensure that they are safe and that any risks they present are accompanied by appropriate warnings,” reads the company website.

Because of this sharp increase, the attorneys launched an investigation into the countertop fabrication industry last May. Shortly afterward, the filed a class-action lawsuit against major countertop fabricators.

“The point of the class action is to bring the manufacturers of the engineered stone to account for the very considerable injuries that the product is causing people,” stated Margaret Kent of Slater and Gordon.