Explainer: What Is Silicosis and Why Is This Old Lung Disease Making a Comeback?
Susan Miles , 8 Aug 17
       

You can barely see this construction worker for dust. His lack of protective face mask puts him at risk of silicosis and other lung diseases. Lamiot/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Silicosis is a group of occupational lung diseases caused by breathing in silica dust. It has been described since ancient times, when miners and stone cutters were exposed to dust containing this crystalline mineral.

Silicosis was more common in Australia in the 1940s to 60s, particularly in construction and demolition workers. Growing awareness of the disease and the importance of reducing exposure to dust – for instance, wearing masks at work, wetting the dust and other safe work practices – has reduced the number of cases.

However, there has been a worrying resurgence of cases recently, as a recent New South Wales parliamentary committee has heard. Now one of the fastest growing occupational groups we’re seeing with silicosis are people who make and install engineered stone products, the type of benchtops and tiles you might find in your kitchen or bathroom.

This resurgence in cases is likely related to a poor understanding of the risks involved in working with engineered stone, and a lack of adherence to safety regulations and surveillance requirements.

What is silica and how are people exposed?

Silica is in quartz, sand, stone, soil, granite, brick, cement, grout, mortar, bitumen and engineered stone products.

Any occupation disturbing the earth’s crust increases the risk of silicosis. That includes sand blasting, cutting, excavating, building on sandstone, demolition work, tunnelling, quarry work and mining. Air-polishing concrete, foundry work, bricklaying, stone masonry, and making glass and ceramics also increase the risk.

About 6.6% of Australian workers are exposed to crystalline silica dust that can be breathed in, and 3.7% are heavily exposed.

Stone masons are also at risk from silicosis if they don’t take precautions against breathing in silica dust. from www.shutterstock.com .

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