The Guardian • Issue #2044

Less than eight years to live

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2044

Silicosis. Image: Gumersindorego – Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Silica dust is so fine that it is 100 times smaller than a grain of sand. But with each breath, you risk death.

A Curtin University report has predicted that around 10,000 Australians will develop lung cancer in their lifetime due to exposure to silica dust.

The dust is common when working in construction, tunnelling, quarrying, excavating, mining, road construction, and some manufacturing processes. It’s produced when cutting engineered stone, as is common when making kitchen benchtops.

Former stonemason Kyle Goodman speaks from experience when he says no future generations should have to be diagnosed with the deadly disease. “Four and a half years ago, I was given between five and eight years to live,” he said.

“It’s a death sentence. There’s no cure; there’s no treatment.”

The disease does not discriminate, striking workers in their twenties, thirties and forties. When Joanna McNeill received her silicosis diagnosis, it was a moment of cruel irony.

“I was told ‘you do have silicosis’ and I had no idea what it was,” McNeill said. She was working as a safety officer for a quarry at the time.

“I ran safety meetings. I ran everything in the toolbox for safety. How did I not know what crystalline silica dust is?” she said. “Engineered stone is killing workers. This is the asbestos of the 2020s.”

Over half a million Australian workers are currently exposed to silica dust every day.

The disease and its cause have been known for more than a century. As far back as 1935 state governments in the US were forced to incorporate silicosis into workers’ health schedules. Health and safety requirements to hose down dust during drilling were not enforced and millions of workers died from silicosis.

The Labor government made a commitment to ban the importation, manufacture, and use of the engineered stone with legislation later this year. This follows the CFMEU’s threat to ban its use if it not do so.

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