Australia is considering a ban on engineered stone after a joint investigation by three news agencies accused manufacturer Caesarstone of not doing enough to warn people about the dangers of working with the material.
The Australian government instructed national policy body Safe Work Australia to begin investigating the ban following an investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers and the 60 Minutes news program.
The research, which was published on February 19, claimed that the proliferation of engineered stone – a composite material commonly used for kitchen worktops made of crushed stone, such as quartz and a binder – has led to an increase in cases of the lung disease silicosis in Australia.
Engineered stone is safe when used as a worktop at home, but can be dangerous when cut because of the silica dust it sends into the air, according to experts interviewed for the survey.
The media investigation was published at the same time Australia’s construction union launched a campaign calling for a ban on engineered stone, which has now been countered by the federal government.
Safe Work Australia has been asked to investigate what a future product ban should look like and will make a decision later this year.
This will include setting the percentage of silica in stone that should be banned, with a licensing system covering those products with lower quantities. It was also asked to consider how to deal with material that had to be moved or demolished in the future.
“Safe Work Australia has the expertise to be able to work exactly where it needs to be drawn,” Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said in an interview. “But wherever that line is drawn, it has to be drawn on the side of people who can go to work and come home without a terminal illness.”
A decision on the ban is expected within the year, with the rules coming into effect 12 months later. It would make Australia the first country in the world to ban manufactured stone, although New Zealand has indicated it may follow suit.
Deadly disease makes sufferers feel ‘like they’re strangling’
Silicosis is an incurable disease caused by the embedding of microscopic silicon particles in the lining of the lungs. To contract the disease, people must be exposed to high levels of silica over a sustained period, for example, through drilling or cutting unprotected silica-containing material.
The investigation by the three news organizations profiled stonemasons and tradesmen in their 30s and 40s who show typical silicosis symptoms such as shortness of breath and fatigue and have been given a prognosis of just years to live.
Pulmonary expert Professor Deborah Yates described the symptoms as “choking” or “your lungs contracting from the inside” and said rates of the disease had been rising in Australia over the past decade.
“I’ve never seen so many young people with silicosis,” he told 60 Minutes. “I think my youngest is 27. It’s really painful; I couldn’t 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 smaller amounts than in manufactured quartz stone, which can contain up to 97 per cent silica, according to Safe Work Australia.
Caesarstone was accused of failing to take responsibility for the dangers of engineered stone
Caesarstone, which was founded in Israel in 1987, was the first company to introduce engineered stone to Australia but has tried to distance itself from the dangers of working with the material, the inquest claims.
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 originally titled Caesarstone: Silicosis Disease Resurgence Among Artificial Stone Workers.
Kramer said he had hoped Caesarstone would work with him to address security issues surrounding the hardware, but claimed he was instead threatened with legal action. The magazine eventually changed the name of the paper to omit Caesarstone’s mention before publication.
“I think it’s outrageous,” he said. “They are not taking responsibility for something they created. This is a case of serious illness and death.”
“In previous years, we had no cases of silicosis in Israel; this was a very rare disease. But from 2006 we started seeing one patient after another, and very severe cases that needed a lung transplant. And then he found that all of them they were working with Caesarstone’s new engineered stone.’
Caesarstone claims it has placed prominent warnings on all its slabs since 2010, when it “recognized the silicification problem,” but 60 Minutes called it a “cynical exercise” as the text on the labels was so small it was illegible . A redesigned sticker with larger text, warning icons and clearer wording was introduced in 2018.
Caesarstone denies the “disgusting” allegations in a statement
In response to the investigation’s allegations, Caesarstone issued a statement claiming that its material is completely safe when used properly. It said that the disease risks were a result of non-compliance with product handling requirements and that employers and occupational safety authorities were to blame.
He called the claims “abhorrent” and “totally unfounded,” stating that all stones contain potentially dangerous silica, not just manufactured stones.
“Caesarstone has been providing clear warnings to customers about the quartz content of engineered stone, the risk of silicification and safe handling procedures since the 1990s,” said Caesarstone Asia-Pacific managing director David Cullen. “These predate Caesarstone’s entry into Australia.”
“Since 2010, when Caesarstone recognized the silicification problem, every slab has had an important warning,” he continued. “We have also focused heavily on training manufacturers and have worked closely with government through our participation in state working groups in NSW, Queensland and Victoria and the National Dust Illness Working Group.”
“The engineered stone industry has matured a lot in recent years, with significant improvement in professionalism, working practices and safe handling by manufacturers. This needs to continue. Banning a product that you can handle safely makes no sense. Licensing of an industry to ensure full compliance makes sense.”