‘Safe’ alternatives to engineered stone bench tops may not be so safe after all, study finds

‘Safe’ alternatives to engineered stone bench tops may not be so safe after all, study finds
  • PublishedDecember 5, 2023

It’s been widely publicised that engineered stone products contain deadly silica dust, but new research suggests there isn’t a safe alternative.

Now, researchers from the University of Tasmania (UTAS) and the University of Adelaide have found silica isn’t the only component in engineered stone products that’s a cause for concern.

UTAS’ Professor Graeme Zosky said the study found that higher metal content could also damage the lungs. 

A man with silver hair and glasses stands in front of a building
Professor Graeme Zosky is the associate dean of research for the University of Tasmania College of Health and Medicine(ABC News: Kate Nickels)

“Cobalt is contained in a lot of the products, it’s one of the elements that’s used to generate specific colours so we would be concerned that that particular element is in some of the new products that are emerging on the market to replace the silica that’s being removed,” he said.

“This has significant implications for new products that are emerging on the market particularly low and no-silica products which are claimed to be safe.

“We know that removing silica from the products is a good thing and the calls to ban the products are well founded because of the severity of the disease.

“Our concerns is that replacing silica with other compounds could also cause significant adverse lung response and lead to development of silicosis.”

Engineered stone is commonly used in benchtops in Australia.

A shiny white and grey kitchen countertop.
The study’s authors say they were unable to find a viable alternative to engineered stone.(Supplied: iStock photoEJ-J)

The study examined 50 engineered stones including natural stones and other building products and cut them to collect the dust.

The researchers determined which dust posed the greatest risk on lungs, and silica still came out on top.

“Silicosis due to engineered stone dusts is a far more severe form of disease, developing over shorter time frames and rapidly progressing,” Professor Zosky said.

“Unfortunately people who are inhaling these dusts have a really high chance of developing silicosis, around 30 per cent of workers have evidence of the disease.”

When exposed to lung cells the results showed higher silica content was associated with more inflammation.

Granite inflammation link

Higher metal content, as found in cobalt and aluminium, has been linked with dust toxicity but the study revealed that cutting natural products like granite was also not safe.

“What we found … was that the natural products we had in the panel of products that we assessed actually caused the biggest inflammatory response,” Professor Zosky said.

“It’s not just about the silica, it’s something specific about the engineered stone products that’s causing such a significant issue in workers fabricating these products.”

The study didn’t find a viable alternative and the researchers are urging caution as alternative materials are produced. 

“The short answer to the question of whether or not any of these products are safe is ‘no’,” Professor Zosky said.

“Really to protect workers we need to make sure that they don’t inhale any dust when they work.

“If you inhale dust when you fabricate engineered stone, or any stone for that matter, it poses a risk to your lung health.”

A Safe Work Australia report in October recommended banning the use of all engineered stone.

Hardware store Bunnings has said it will not be selling it from next year.

The Tasmanian government has supported the recommended ban.

‘No dust is good’

Tasmanian stone mason Shaun Dobson from Dobson’s Monumental Works said his company has been using engineered stone products for 20 years.

“We’ve been doing stuff correctly for that period of time, it’s probably been other companies that haven’t done it by the rules and how it’s meant to be done, and they’re probably the ones who are getting people with cases.”

“It’s like anything, no dust is going to be good for you, isn’t it?

“Whether it’s people sanding out with plaster, whether it’s concrete getting cut, a tile layer cutting tiles, bricklayers cutting bricks, none of it’s good for you at the end of the day.

He said the focus now needs to be on worker safety.

“We spent millions and millions of dollars to update our machinery over the last five years to make things a lot safer and better for our workers,” Mr Dobson said.

“For us to see dust at work now is very uncommon.

“I suppose the companies that aren’t doing it correctly, there’s some people that have got some hefty fines for not doing it correctly.

“We’ve invested that money into being better for our workers and taking care of our workers. Why put them at risk when there’s no need for it?

Mr Dobson expects engineered stone products to be banned but wants the new products to also be safe.

“I would say that engineered stone itself will eventually be gone, I suppose it’s only a matter of time before it is gone.”


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