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A Short History of Silica and Asbestos

Silica and Asbestos Mining

In the 4th century BC (some 2500 years ago) the Greek physician Hippocrates first noted respiratory problems due to dust inhalation i.e., silicosis.

In the 1550s, Georgius Agricola, a German scientist and pharmacist, wrote of regions in Europe where men from mining towns were dying from lung-related illnesses at young ages. Women from these villages reportedly had five or more husbands die during their lifetimes.

A formal inquest in Britain in the 1920s found deaths in asbestos workers were “beyond reasonable doubt, caused by fibrosis of the lungs”.

Despite this:

  • Asbestos was widely used in Australia until the 1980s. It was not completely illegal until 2003.
  • Crystalline silica and activities that generate silica dust only came under serious regulatory scrutiny in the past several years.

This year marks the 3rd anniversary of the death of Gold Coast stonemason Anthony White, who was labelled the first victim of what some predict will be Australia’s worst industrial epidemic since asbestos.

Decades after legislation banned the manufacture, importation and supply of the infamous product following a surge in asbestos-related illnesses, the health dangers of an equally common and hazardous material are now becoming clear – silica.

To be accurate – crystalline silica. Extremely common in the earth’s crust, making up over 50% of dirt, rocks and sands, silica is used extensively in industry and construction. Activities that involve dust generation like cutting and grinding produce tiny particles of crystalline silica that lodge deep in the lungs and become trapped.

Symptoms from the disease may take decades to manifest. The lodged particles cause scarring and immune / inflammatory responses in the lungs leading to symptoms that include:

  • shortness of breath
  • cough,
  • fever, and
  • cyanosis

As with all hazards, management of the risks of crystalline silica should be done in accordance with the hierarchy of controls, with lower levels in the hierarchy used only if it is not reasonably practicable to use higher levels.

You can find further information on how the hazards of silicosis can be managed here:

Crystalline Silica and Silicosis – WHS Guide – Spire Safety Consultancy

Silica – Managing exposure in the workplace (worksafe.qld.gov.au)

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