NSW MP Jeremy Buckingham’s relief after five years of wondering whether he had caused fatal silicosis by a killer tabletop model
Shortly before 3.59pm on Wednesday, NSW MP Jeremy Buckingham received an answer to the question that has terrorized him for the past five years.
The Legalize Cannabis MP worked as a stonemason for 14 years until 2011, where he was regularly near the ‘thick fume’ of crystalline silica dust.
The toxic substance is released during the crushing, cutting and installation of artificial stone, a common material used in kitchen and bathroom countertops.
When inhaled, the substance can cause irreversible lung damage, including lung cancer and silicosis – the incurable and fatal disease that has led to calls for a national ban on the artificial stone.
“It wasn’t a heavy grainy dust and it smelled a little bit toxic, so that was alarming to us,” Buckingham said.
“We all noticed it and that’s when we first started wondering how safe it was to use this material.”
NSW MP Jeremy Buckingham spent five years fearing he could develop the deadly disease silicosis after working as a stonemason for 14 years before entering politics
The first diagnosis of silicosis associated with artificial stone was reported in 2015, and numbers have increased significantly in the years since.
The news was distressing, but for Buckingham and many of his former colleagues, denial was their chosen coping mechanism.
“Everyone had the same attitude: you can’t do anything, it’s a death sentence,” he said.
‘It’s easier to live in denial. It took me five years to get tested because I just didn’t want to face the reality that I could be suffering from a horrible disease.’
Even then, fear would inevitably creep in.
“You forget and then you wake up in the middle of the night and you worry and you try to remember how many times you cut the stone, or all the times your mask fell off,” he said.
Ultimately, it was his wife who pushed him to take the test.
An x-ray of healthy lungs for comparison with the x-ray below
An x-ray of lungs affected by silicosis with progressive massive fibrosis. Photo: courtesy of Bruno Di Muzio, Radiopaedia.org
After a ‘terrifying’ two weeks, Buckingham’s X-ray, respiratory examination and lung function test revealed he had no signs of silicosis. At least for now.
Symptoms of acute silicosis can develop within weeks of heavy exposure, while chronic silicosis typically develops 10 to 30 years after lower but persistent levels of exposure.
On Wednesday he celebrated with a ‘casual evening’ filled with a ‘couple of pints’ and a ‘huge chicken kebab’, but he acknowledges countless others won’t be so lucky.
“I have achieved a good result, but the problem for me is that so many men and women will not do that, and who knows what will happen for me in the future,” said Mr Buckingham, who has called for a total ban on artificial stone. since 2018.
‘It is therefore the government’s duty of care to first ban this completely unnecessary product for the welfare of the workers and ensure that this problem is properly managed in the future.’
Lung Foundation Australia estimates that approximately 600,000 Australian workers are currently exposed to silica dust, with at least 579 cases of silicosis in the Australian artificial stone industry by May 2022.
Sobering figures from Curtin University suggest that between 83,000 and 103,000 cases of silicosis could develop in 2016 alone, in addition to 10,300 cases of lung cancer.
Crystalline silica dust released during the crushing, cutting and installation of artificial stone can cause irreversible lung damage, including lung cancer and silicosis, if inhaled
A damning SafeWork Australia report released in August this year also recommended banning artificial stone, regardless of its silica content. Although some jurisdictions have workplace safety laws, such as dry cutting bans, to reduce the chance of inhalation, the report found that non-compliance was a problem.
“The costs to industry, while real and relevant, cannot outweigh the significant costs to Australian workers, their families and the wider community arising from exposure to RCS (respirable crystalline silica) from artificial stone,” the report said.
The decision now rests with the state and territory governments, who will hopefully agree to a unanimous ban when they meet in mid-December.
In NSW, Premier Chris Minns has said that while he prefers a national approach, the government was “prepared” to go it alone.
“If you have different jurisdictions with different rules, it could be imported into Queensland, shipped across the border into NSW and then processed in our state, that is not a desirable outcome,” he told reporters. on Wednesday.
“If we can’t reach a national agreement, we will go it alone, but I think it is reasonable under the circumstances to see if we can get all the states to agree first.”
While NSW has already committed to setting up a register to track and trace workers exposed to silica, Mr Buckingham says additional policies such as strict rules on the disposal of old artificial stone, plus a log of where the material has been used .
“This material is already killing people, it’s already killing people,” he said.
“It is our regulatory regime that allows this product to be released, so the industry and government will have to foot the bill.”