Over the last year or so, you may have noticed news articles discussing a potential ban on engineered stone (also referred to as composite stone or reconstituted stone). This is certainly an issue of concern in the design and construction industries with the products in question being labelled as the next asbestos. We explore the issue, looking at the cause, risks and alternative solutions that can be employed during the design and planning stage of your project to ensure a better informed decision.
What is Engineered Stone?
This type of material is often made using a combination of quartz, pigments and polymers and is a popular solution as a kitchen benchtop. The benefit of engineered stone has been that in comparison to natural stone or timber benchtops for example, engineered stones provide a low maintenance solution that will not require sealing. The material will usually hold up better than natural materials against staining or marking and depending on the brand, type and colour you choose, engineered stone benchtops are usually cheaper than natural stone benchtop options. However, this modern convenience has come at a serious cost that is affecting the health and wellbeing of stonemasons that work with the material, leaving a devastating mark on the industry.
Why is Engineered Stone Dangerous?
According to Safework Australia “Working with engineered stone can expose workers to the risks of respirable crystalline silica, which can cause silicosis and other silica-related diseases.” Silica dust is 100 times smaller than a single grain of sand, allowing it to easily travel through the air when engineered stone products are being cut into. Exposure can lead to serious and terminal illnesses including lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease. For more detailed information on the dangers of working with silica dust, see The Guardian’s article here.
Is there a Ban on Engineered Stone in Australia?
Although engineered stone products are not yet banned in Australia, there is a push to ban them completely. Trade Unions are aiming to ban use of the material by mid 2024 if the Australian Government has not made a decision by then.
In the meantime, recent OHS Regulations have been introduced to ensure that engineered stones are safely used in the construction industry.
The regulation stipulates that:
A power tool is not used to cut, grind or abrasively polish engineered stone, unless the tool:
- has an integrated water delivery system that supplies a continuous feed of water (on-tool water suppression), or
- is fitted with on-tool extraction attached to a HEPA filtered dust class H vacuum cleaner (or similar system that captures the dust generated).
Source: Gordon Legal
Is Engineered Stone Safe in the Home?
The dangers of engineered stone surfaces lie in the installation phase of your benchtop’s lifespan (and potentially in the product’s removal). Similar to asbestos, the dust particles are released when the product is cut into and should only pose a threat during this process. If you are planning on removing any engineered stone products from your home throughout the course of a renovation for example, it is best to seek expert advice on safely removing the material and proper PPE should be worn at all times during the removal process. Safe disposal should also be planned in order to minimise any potential risks.
Which Benchtops Cause Silicosis?
Engineered stone benchtop options that contain a blend of polymers, quartz and resins are specifically in question here. There are many alternative options to consider though and most brands that manufacture these products are also releasing exciting modern alternatives that make use of recycled glass or porcelain instead, offering much safer materials that still offer the same benefits as traditional engineered stone products.
Alternatives to Engineered Stone Benchtops
Brands that have traditionally made engineered stone benchtops are introducing modern alternatives that allow for a much safer solution in the home. Modern alternatives include: recycled glass benchtops, porcelain benchtops and solid surface benchtops. Other solutions include: natural stone benchtops, timber benchtops, stainless steel or concrete benchtops. Checkout Smartstone’s Ibrido collection or Caesarstone’s Porcelain benchtop collection for inspiration!