Calls for national task force to address growing epidemic of fatal accelerated silicosis

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ), The Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists, the Australian New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM) and the Lung Foundation are calling on both major parties to commit to a national task force and fund a national occupationally acquired respiratory disease surveillance and registry program to address the public health crisis facing the artificial stone benchtop industry.

Australia is currently in the grips of an epidemic of accelerated silicosis, a preventable occupational lung disease occurring in workers as a result of exposure to silica dust. This can occur in various industries, but the recent spike in cases is related to the manufacture and installation of artificial stone bench tops.

Silicosis is caused by inhalation of very fine silica dust. Unlike natural stone such as granite, which comprise approximately 30 per cent silica, artificial stone materials typically contain over 90 per cent silica, leading to an accelerated form of silicosis.

In the last six months in Queensland alone, over 100 stonemasons have been diagnosed with the preventable lung disease and in March this year, 36-year-old Gold Coast stone mason Anthony White lost his life to the condition. Of approximately 400 stone masons screened for silicosis, 25 per cent have been diagnosed with the disease. Silicosis represents the biggest lung disease crisis since asbestosis and it deserves a rapid and comprehensive government response.

In response to these alarming statistics, the RACP and TSANZ are calling on the major parties to commit to urgently establishing a Commonwealth-sponsored Dust Disease Taskforce, with the responsibility of leading and coordinating a national response to the epidemic.

Dr Graeme Edwards, an occupational physician and Fellow of the RACP said “while 100 stonemasons have already been diagnosed in Queensland, there is likely to be several hundred, and possibly more than a thousand, affected workers across Australia. Most remain undiagnosed.”

“In March we witnessed the tragic human cost of the disease, when Anthony White lost his life. Tragically his brother, who is also a stone mason, has also been diagnosed with the condition.

“We are also seeing a significant number of workers diagnosed with a rapidly progressive form of this disease, Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF). Unless its progress is arrested, this condition leads to early death or lung transplantation; currently the only option for treatment. If there is a coordinated national response we have a chance of making a real difference for these workers.”

TSANZ spokesperson Dr Ryan Hoy said it is “extremely disappointing that six months since this issue came to national attention and was considered by COAG Health Council, we are still waiting for national leadership and urgent action to mitigate the severity and impact of the disease in the at-risk population.”

“Early identification, even before symptoms have developed, and avoidance of further exposure to silica dust are absolutely crucial.”

“While some jurisdictions are putting measures in place, what we really require is national leadership on the issue and a coordinated collaborative response to avoid unnecessary duplication and inconsistencies between jurisdictions.

“The national taskforce needs to include representatives from all key stakeholder groups, including experts from the medical profession, regulatory authorities, health and industrial relations departments across all tiers of government, workers compensation authorities and the artificial stone bench top industry.”

“If a national coordinated response to this pressing health issue is not urgently implemented, many more lives will be lost to this preventable disease,” said Dr Hoy.

AIOH President, Dr Julia Norris added that, “we cannot afford to wait. If we are to prevent any further cases of silicosis, immediate priority has to be given to preventing further exposure to silica dust. This includes providing information on the nature and severity of the hazard and most importantly, controls”.

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