Save Our Sands Alliance requests taskforce review of non-occupational exposure to silica dust and cases of silicosis

In July 2019, the Federal Government plans to establish a National Dust Diseases Taskforce, with members drawn from the medical community, researchers, government and industry.

The Taskforce will identify ways to:

  • reduce the incidence and severity of dust diseases;
  • ensure availability of effective treatment;
  • reduce exposure through improved prevention, awareness and capacity building;
  • eliminate hazards through better machinery and workplace design;
  • ensure appropriate control of potentially hazardous materials; achieve better work health and safety outcomes through improved regulation and compliance; and
  • review the latest research into dust diseases and identify research gaps.

Silicosis has been predicted as a ‘health crisis worse than asbestosis’ in workers but is significantly underestimated as an environmental disease.

Almost all of the information about the health effects of respirable crystalline silica (RCS) exposure and reported cases of silicosis come from studies of miners, construction workers, engineers and farmers who were exposed to high levels for many years. Non-occupational exposures and cases of silicosis are rarely estimated or measured in the vicinity of mining and industrial sites.

Recently, public concern regarding non-occupational exposures to RCS has emerged internationally, making it important to gather information available on non-occupational exposures to RCS and non-occupational cases of silicosis.

In certain cases, there has been research on non-occupational exposures. A few studies have found high levels of RCS within the vicinity of uncontrolled rock cutting and grinding operations in manufacturing facilities. There have also been studies that have implicated chronic exposure to windblown desert dust in cases of non-occupational lung disease.

In the Southern Highlands (NSW), two large sand mines, with sand blasting and processing on site, and a significant coal mine have been proposed within a few kilometres of each other in residential areas. The mines have been described as posing a ‘substantial and unquantified risk’ and considered an ‘unparalleled risk to the state’ for a variety of reasons.

We feel the cumulative risk of exposure to respirable crystalline silica within the vicinity of these mines has not been appropriately considered or reviewed.

We are significantly concerned for the long-term health and well-being of residents in the Southern Highlands (NSW) and request a review on the cumulative risk of the coal mine and two sand mine proposals in the region.

We welcome this national response and ask Hon Greg Hunt MP, Hon Sussan Ley MP and the National Health and Medical Research Council to review the latest research on silicosis as an environmental disease and non-occupational cases of silicosis in comparable regions, such as the US, New Zealand, Canada, UK and Western Europe, specifically cases within the vicinity of mining and industrial sites.

We also ask for consideration of a separate standard for community exposure to respirable crystalline silica within the vicinity of mining and industrial sites, which addresses vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly.

Maev Kerri Fitzpatrick, Save Our Sands Alliance.