This is a life sentence’: Mother-of-two contracts deadly disease by inhaling crystalline silica
Joanna McNeill just wishes someone had told her.
Told her that even though she worked in administration, the dust she would inhale from the nearby quarry would leave her lungs scarred.
Told her that as the years progressed, her lung capacity would diminish and she would one day struggle to breathe.
“This is a life sentence for me and I don’t know when my time is up,” she told 9News.
When Mrs McNeill returned to her admin position after maternity leave, she underwent a health assessment.
Tests, X-rays, CT scans and a lung biopsy later, Mrs McNeill was diagnosed last year with silicosis – a lung disease caused by inhaling crystalline silica.
She never thought she’d be at risk.
Her office was in an admin building but she would go home and could feel the dust on her face, on her lips, in her hair.
“I was very shocked,” she says.
“I had no idea what that meant for me. I thought ‘oh my gosh, do I have cancer?’
“I’m still a little bit in denial.”
Mrs McNeill has two daughters aged two and four and the 34-year-old mother said her biggest fear is not being there for them.
“My greatest fear with my kids is I just want to be around for them. I don’t want to die early. I just want to be there for them.”
Now she’s playing a waiting game; her lung capacity is tested every four months.
“This whole process has given me so much anxiety… not knowing what the future holds,” she says.
Husband Matthew says the diagnosis came from left field and was a shock to the family, particularly as she didn’t work in the actual quarry.
“The big issue for us is the unknown,” he says.
For now, Mrs McNeill is exercising daily to increase her lung capacity and doing as much as she can with her daughters while she is still able.
She’s also supporting a national campaign launching tomorrow by the Australian Workers Union calling for tougher regulations with minimum benchmarks that protect all workers exposed to deadly silica dust.
The AWU also wants a compensation fund put in place to avoid a repeat of the decades long battle with James Hardie over asbestos.
“It took two decades to make James Hardie pay for what they did and for the truth to come out about asbestos,” AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said.
“It would be a disgrace if we allowed history to repeat itself.”
Preliminary reforms recommended by the Federal Government’s National Dust Disease Taskforce provides extra protection for stonemasons but not for other workers in construction, mining, quarries and tunnels, Mr Walton said.
“Around six per cent of all Australians are exposed to silica dust each year,” he said.
“Yet this is a substance even more deadly than asbestos.
“The lives of tens of thousands of workers … are being put at risk by companies who are placing profits ahead of worker safety and being allowed to get away with it.”
Silicosis has been around for decades but there has been a resurgence in workers in recent years.
Mrs McNeill says she wants people to know that you don’t have to be in the industry for 20 years before it affects you or that it takes decades to develop like asbestosis.
She had been at her workplace for just seven years.