The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) and the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) are today calling for urgent action by regulators to address a public health crisis impacting workers in the artificial stone benchtop industry.
In response to a recent outbreak of the life-threatening lung disease accelerated silicosis, the organisations are calling for immediate action to include:
- Respiratory health assessments of all workers (past and present) in the industry
- An urgent review of the dust control measures used in the industry, including independent monitoring of dust levels
- Comprehensive enforcement of hazardous substances regulations related to silica dust exposure
- Enforcement of an immediate prohibition on dry cutting techniques
- A national occupationally acquired respiratory disease surveillance and registry program.
"Silicosis is a lung condition that has historically occurred in the mining industry when airborne silica-containing dust isn't adequately controlled. It can take up to 40 years for workers to develop chronic silicosis", said Dr Graeme Edwards, an occupational physician and Fellow of the RACP.
"We are now seeing an increasing number of people who work with artificial stone materials used for kitchen, bathroom and laundry benchtops, diagnosed with accelerated silicosis after only three to 10 years.
Silicosis is caused by inhalation of silica dust. Unlike natural stone such as granite, which comprise approximately 30% silica, artificial stone materials typically contain over 90% silica, leading to an accelerated form of silicosis.
Recent health surveillance of workers in the artificial stone benchtop industry in Queensland has revealed alarmingly high rates of accelerated silicosis with approximately one in three workers in the industry being diagnosed. Both RACP and TSANZ expect these rates to be the same across Australia.
TSANZ spokesperson Dr Ryan Hoy said "Accelerated silicosis is normally rare, so there is much to learn about how to best treat it. Early identification, even before symptoms have developed, and avoidance of further exposure to silica dust are crucial.
"Many of these workers have already developed a silicosis complication known as Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF). Both silicosis and PMF are life-shortening illnesses, for which the only treatment at present is lung transplantation.
"Urgent clinical trials are required to assess the potential effectiveness of some new drugs being used for a different lung scarring condition.
"Our members have been reporting cases of silicosis in this industry for the last few years. We are eagerly awaiting a positive response to our call for a national respiratory health surveillance and registry program to drive an evidence-based approach to this burgeoning public health crisis.
"Australian workers deserve a safe workplace, and early intervention and treatment when problems arise. The current situation is simply unacceptable. Prevention is the best strategy but we need to know the scale and to act now", said Dr Hoy.
The RACP through its Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (AFOEM) is working with the Thoracic Society to develop answers to frequently asked questions to assist doctors and their patients throughout Australia and New Zealand.