Popular home renovation fad poses deadly dust threat

A popular home renovation fad is behind a new deadly dust threat that experts say is endangering the health of hundreds or thousands of workers and may lead to a wave of legal claims.

Crystalline silica is present in almost all types of rocks, sand, clay and gravel, but has been detected in particularly high levels in popular artificial kitchen and bathroom benchtops.

Long-term exposure to the dust can be fatal, causing cancer and a scarring of the lungs called silicosis, including cases so serious people have had to undergo lung transplants.

It has drawn parallels to asbestos because of its popularity in home renovations.

But unlike asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, people reportedly start feeling symptoms as soon as one or two years after exposure, which means it can strike down people in their 20s or 30s.

Melbourne grandfather Remzi Ismaili, 60, is among those battling serious ill-health after a lifetime of being surrounded by silica dust on major construction sites around the city.

"That was part of everyday," Mr Ismaili said.

He said some days he would be cutting concrete, or sweeping stairwells - and if supplies ran out, he would be doing it without a mask.

"Even if someone else was doing the jack hammering it wasn't compulsory for everyone else to wear masks," Mr Ismaili said.

The father of two says he gave his life to his job and was forced to retire last year when his feet and ankles started swelling, symptoms of another silica-linked disease called scleroderma.

"I can do things, but I'm not walking like a 60-year-old, I'm walking like an 80-year-old," Mr Ismaili said.

"Going back a couple of months I went to see my grandson playing in local soccer. I was standing for about four hours. The next day I couldn't get up."

While cases like Mr Ismaili's were previously thought to be rare, doctors and compensation lawyers say the explosion of popularity in manufactured stone bench tops since the early 2000s has resulted in an alarming revival of silicosis cases.

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Law firm Slater and Gordon today launched its own national silicosis register, where people can provide details if they believe they may have been exposed to silica dust.

Slater and Gordon dust diseases lawyer, Claire Setches, said she had so far worked on about a dozen causes where people had been affected.

"I anticipate there are probably thousands of workers that have been exposed to silica dust," Ms Setches said.

"Historically it's been in the building and demolition industries, now we are seeing these cohort that work with stone bench tops [cutting and installing, and sweeping up afterwards]."

Early symptoms of silicosis can include breathlessness and chest pain.

"It can ultimately lead to death or a lung transplant, which only gives you an extra five to 10 years," Ms Setches said.

People with benchtops in their homes should not be alarmed, however, as silica poses a danger only when the stone is cut or particles are released into the air. Severe symptoms are linked to longer-term exposure.

Respiratory physician Dr Ryan Hoy has been investigating the recent spate of silicosis cases, after he and colleagues around the nation identified seven serious cases involving kitchen and benchtop manufacturers.

He said these cases likely represented the tip of the iceberg, but because there was no national register for lung disease it was impossible to know how many more could be out there.

"We know artificial stone has become a very popular choice for kitchen and bathrooms, so we suspect there are likely to be hundreds of workers in that industry exposed to potentially hazardous levels of dust," he said.

The use of hazardous substances such as crystalline silica is regulated in Australia, however, Dr Hoy said he was concerned that recommendations on the use of ventilation, water suppression and masks were not always followed, particularly in small workplaces.

"Workers are often provided a disposable mask, which will do nothing do protect them from the exposure and we are concerned that dust in workplaces is not at a safe level," Dr Hoy said.

This story Popular home renovation fad poses deadly dust threat first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.