The mother of the first known victim of silicosis says her son needed a ventilator to breath and “really didn’t have a life” for 16 months before his death.
Speaking for the first time since Anthony White died in March at the age of 36, Di White said he was “a very loyal son, very close to me, he was courageous, he was a good guy, thought of others before himself, just a really nice guy.”
Her younger son, 35-year-old Shane Paratam, also has the disease. The brothers worked together as stonemasons on the Gold Coast.
“I think there was a lot of dry-cutting the stone, there was a lot of dust in the air,” she said.
“The boys used to come home covered in dust.
“I recall many years ago that I’d actually said ‘I hope you guys are wearing masks’ and they assured me that they were. Albeit that they were probably paper masks back then, 10, 15 years ago.”
Di White said she and her husband would have grit in their teeth from shaking the dust from their sons’ clothes.
Anthony White was diagnosed with silicosis in 2017 after a terrible cough forced him home during his smoko, Ms White said.
His lungs were affected by massive fibrosis, so he was only breathing on the bottom third of his lungs.”
Ms White, a nurse, told RN Breakfast she had been devastated to read in her textbooks that the incurable disease had a prognosis of less than five years.
‘Sitting in his room on a machine just to be able to breathe’
Silicosis is caused by breathing in dust containing crystalline silica, which is found in high levels in popular manufactured stone bench tops, but also in other products including granite, sandstone and concrete.
After his diagnosis, Mr White needed a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) ventilator to breath for him.
“It impacted everyday on his life, he really didn’t have a life in those 16 months,” Ms White said.
He went from going to work every day to sitting in his room on a machine just to be able to breathe.”
In the months before Anthony White’s death his father was diagnosed with liver cancer and was unable to work, Ms White’s first grandchild died in utero and Mr Paratam was also diagnosed with silicosis, forcing him to stop working.
In his final hours, Mr White had managed a quiet outing to the local tavern, where he had occasionally found an outlet in playing the pokies, accompanied by a soft drink.
“He collapsed in the bathroom and that knock on the door from the police that night was the hardest thing, I thought I was going to die,” Ms White said.
“You don’t come to terms with it. How do I stay optimistic, hopeful, supportive, of my son in his diagnosis now, knowing the outcome from his brother?”
Several of the brothers’ workmates have the disease, devastating their employer, who was also a mate.
The company declined an interview.
Silicosis a national problem
At least 172 people have been diagnosed with silicosis in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT, and doctors fear there will not be enough donor lungs for all the victims.
Lawyer Roger Singh represented Mr White and is also acting for 17 other young men with silicosis.
“The law recognises that where an employer employs somebody, there is a direct duty of care,” he said.
The suppliers (of stone products) have known for well over a decade now, and we say more could and should have been done by them to warn those who might be handling and cutting this material.”
Di White does not blame the employer but agrees the suppliers should have ensured the stonemasons understood the dangers.
Suppliers Caesarstone Australia, Quantum Quartz, Smartstone Australia and CDK released a statement through the Australian Engineered Stone Advisory Group (AESAG).
It said they have long provided customers with comprehensive information and their products are safe when cut as recommended, but the group is also working to do more.
Australia’s workplace safety authority released a draft recommendation to slash the allowable level of silica dust in workplaces, a similar position to its counterparts in the United States and the European Union.
However, a recent meeting of Safe Work Australia’s committee of state and territory authorities, as well as employee and employer representatives, did not endorse the draft recommendation of an 80 per cent cut to the allowable level of silica dust.
Instead, the group endorsed halving it, with a three-year phase-in period.
Unions accuse employer groups of blocking the draft recommendation.
The Chamber of Commerce and Industry was unavailable for an interview, while the Australian Industry Group’s Manufacturing Director, Mark Goodsell, denied AIG opposed a bigger cut.
“No we didn’t take a position on that because it was a complicated range of factors,” he said. “We don’t have any technical knowledge on the issue but clearly there is a move to improve the standard, which we didn’t oppose and we don’t oppose.”
Safe Work Australia’s recommendation will go to the responsible Ministers for approval.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government is planning a National Dust Disease Register and it has commissioned a Taskforce to provide interim advice by the end of the year.
Queensland and other state Governments have responded with various screening programs, workplace investigations and regulatory reviews.
But the White family wants the product banned and they blame governments for failing to police workplace standards.
“Personally, I have not had a response from any of them. This has been out in the media since my son passed away. Not one government official has sent us a letter of condolences. I know to them that’s one individual, but that’s my son,” said Mrs White.