Australia moves to ban engineered stone due to silicosis danger
Australia is considering banning engineered stone after a joint investigation by three news outlets accused manufacturer Caesarstone of not doing enough to warn people of the dangers of working with the material.
The Australian government has directed its national policy body Safe Work Australia to start exploring a ban after an investigation by newspapers the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and current affairs programme 60 Minutes.
The investigation, which was published on 19 February, alleged that the popularisation of engineered stone – a composite material commonly used for kitchen countertops made from crushed stone, such as quartz, and a binder – has led to a rise in cases of the lung disease silicosis in Australia.
Engineered stone is safe when used as a worktop in the home but can be dangerous when cut because of the silica dust it sends into the air, according to the experts interviewed in the investigation.
The media investigation was published at the same time as Australia's construction union launched a campaign calling for a ban on engineered stone, which has now been addressed by the federal government.
Safe Work Australia has been asked to explore what a future ban on the products should look like and will deliver a decision later this year.
This will include determining what percentage of silica in stone should be banned, with a licensing scheme covering those products with lower quantities. It has also been asked to examine how to deal with material that needed to be moved or demolished in the future.
"Safe Work Australia have the expertise to be able to work through exactly where the line should be drawn," workplace relations minister Tony Burke said in a doorstop interview. "But wherever that line is drawn, it has to be drawn on the side of people being able to go to work and come home without a terminal illness."
A decision on the ban is expected later this year, with the rules coming into effect 12 months later. It would make Australia the first country in the world to ban engineered stone, although New Zealand has indicated it may follow suit.
Deadly disease makes suffers feel "like being strangled"
Silicosis is an incurable disease caused by tiny particles of silica becoming embedded in the lining of the lungs. To contract the disease, people need to be exposed to high levels of silica over an ongoing period through, for example, drilling or cutting silica-containing material without protection.
The investigation by the three news organisations profiled stonemasons and tradespeople in their 30s and 40s who experience typical silicosis symptoms such as shortness of breath and fatigue and have been given prognoses of just years to live.
Lung disease specialist professor Deborah Yates described the symptoms as like being "strangled" or "having your lungs contracting from inside", and said rates of the disease had been increasing in Australia for the last decade.
"I've never seen such young people with silicosis," she told 60 Minutes. "I think my youngest is 27. It's really distressing; I could not believe it when I saw these patients with such severe disease."
While silica is also found in natural stones such as marble and granite, it is in lower quantities than in engineered stone made with quartz, which can contain up to 97 per cent silica, according to Safe Work Australia.
Caesarstone accused of not taking responsibility for dangers of engineered stone
Founded in Israel in 1987, Caesarstone was the first company to import engineered stone into Australia but has sought to distance itself from the dangers of working with the material, the investigation alleges.
In 2012, lung disease expert Mordechai Kramer, director of the Institute of Pulmonary and Allergy Medicine at Bellison Hospital in Tel Aviv, authored a study that was originally titled Caesarstone: Silicosis Disease Resurgence Among Artificial Stone Workers.
Kramer said he had hoped Caesarstone would work with him to address the safety issues around the material, but claimed that he was instead threatened with legal action. The journal eventually changed the name of the paper to omit the mention of Caesarstone ahead of publication.
"I think it's outrageous," he said. "They're not taking responsibility for something they created. This is a case of severe diseases and death."
"In the past years, we didn't have any silicosis cases in Israel; this was a very rare disease. But since 2006 we started to see rolling in one patient after another, and very severe cases that needed lung transplantation. And then we found that all of them were working with the new engineered stone of Caesarstone."
Caesarstone claims to have placed prominent warnings on all of its slabs since 2010 when it "recognised the problem of silicosis", but 60 Minutes branded this as "a cynical exercise" as the text on the labels was so small as to be barely readable. A redesigned sticker with larger text, warning icons and clearer wording was introduced in 2018.
Caesarstone denies "distasteful" allegations in statement
In response to the allegations in the investigation, Caesarstone issued a statement claiming its material is entirely safe if handled correctly. It said the disease risks were the result of non-compliance with product handling requirements, and that these were the fault of employers and work safety bodies.
It called allegations "distasteful" and "entirely without foundation", stating that all stone contains potentially risky silica, not just engineered stone.
"Caesarstone has been providing clear warnings to customers about the quartz content of engineered stone, the risk of silicosis and safe handling procedures since the 1990s," said Caesarstone Asia-Pacific managing director David Cullen in the statement. "These predate Caesarstone's entry to Australia."
"Since 2010, when Caesarstone recognised the problem of silicosis, every slab has carried a prominent warning," he continued. "We have also focused heavily on fabricator education, and we have engaged closely with government through our participation in state-based taskforces in NSW, Queensland and Victoria and the National Dust Disease Taskforce."
"The engineered stone industry has matured greatly in recent years, with a significant improvement in professionalism, work practices and safe handling by fabricators. This needs to continue. Banning a product that can be handled safely makes no sense. Licensing an industry to ensure full compliance does make sense."