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Over 1000 Kiwi workers could have been exposed to 'new asbestos', specialists warn


There's a warning at least 1000 Kiwis may have been exposed to a potentially hazardous dust in the workplace, dubbed the 'new asbestos'.

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A popular type of stone used to make benchtops has been dubbed the “new asbestos”. Source: 1 NEWS

Engineered stone is an increasingly popular choice for kitchen, bathroom and laundry bench tops.

It's harmless when finished. Health fears relate only to the dust released during its manufacture due to the high silica content.

A recent study in Australia found alarming rates of 'accelerated silicosis' among Queensland workers.

Dr Alexandra Muthu, the Royal Australiasian College of Physicians spokesperson on accelerated silicosis, says the results are “actually unbelievable”.

“They've found over 170 young people have significant lung disease. Mainly accelerated silicosis, but also a quarter to a fifth of the people have what we call PMF, which is a very significant, very rapid lung disease."

Many didn't have obvious symptoms.

"They might have felt a little bit breathless as they were walking up the stairs and thought they were a little bit unfit," she said. "But there were no clear coughs or infections in the lungs or anything like that."

New Zealand response

No cases have been confirmed here so far, but Dr Muthu says that's because we haven't been looking for it.

“What we do know is that when we go to worksites and do environmental testing on how much silica is in the air, they are well above the work place exposure standards," she said.

If people have these investigations and the experts aren't looking for very subtle signs, that they will be missed - Dr Alexandra Muthu

Dr Muthu says that  based on population estimates, around 1000 people in New Zealand may have been exposed to engineered stone in the workplace, with between 150 and 250 likely to have accelerated silicosis.

The organisation’s calling for a Government-funded coordinated response, “because we know that if people have these investigations and the experts aren't looking for very subtle signs, that they will be missed”.

Worksafe officials said the agency is working rapidly to understand the emerging issue and anyone involved with engineered stone in the workplace should avoid dust exposure.

Calls for regulation

At AGB Stone, General Manager Camden Paranthoiene told 1 NEWS workplace safety is prioritised.

The Auckland factory uses computer saws to wet-cut and a fogging room to catch dust particles during dry cutting.

He wants to see industry-wide regulation, with a standard in place "that's audited, that has some science behind it, that fabricators and industry have signed off to and checked against”.

Benchstone Limited’s Dale Cable uses engineered stone in his business and is aware of the risks.

He says he’s definitely been exposed to silica dust.

"Everyone in this industry has a little bit, but we've always done our best to protect ourselves," he said.

Anyone with concerns is encouraged to register online with Worksafe.