For three years Jack Gray had a cough that just wouldn’t go away.
At first the Melbourne father put it down to smoking and getting older, but a year ago he began to fear its cause was something far worse.
Mr Gray, who had worked as a stonemason since he was 19, went to his doctor to insist they investigate his cough further amid reports of an explosion of silicosis cases among those in his industry.
“It wasn’t until a year ago I went in and said (to my doctors) ‘It’s not right, I’ve had this cough for three years and it’s pretty bad’. And they said we’ll do some chest X-rays and that’s when they found out,” he told news.com.au.
Silicosis is an irreversible lung disease caused by long-term exposure to silica dust, which can be inhaled when artificial or engineered stone is cut.
For Mr Gray, the prognosis isn’t good; doctors have warned he will need a lung transplant in five to 10 years and may need to rely on an oxygen tank to breathe in as little as 18 months.
“That’s if it doesn’t deteriorate even worse,” he said.
“At the moment it’s sort of stable but my lungs, as they get older, will lose function. So no matter what they’re going to get worse.”
The 35-year-old father of four has also been told he will never be well enough to work again, something he has struggled to come to terms with along with the physical impact.
“It sucks, I’m exhausted, even talking now I get puffed,” he said.
“I can’t kick the footy with the kids. I used to love wakeboarding and snowboarding, kicking footy with the kids and playing.
“I can’t even jump on the trampoline without getting puffed. And the future who knows? Five to 10 years for a lung transplant, what do I do after that?”
For now, Mr Gray is receiving payments from WorkCover but he is also mounting a common law claim against his former employer.
He is being represented by Shine Lawyers dust disease expert Roger Singh, who is also representing 19 other clients with silicosis nationwide.
As well, 166 cases have been identified in Queensland, 23 in NSW, five in Tasmania, three in Western Australia and one each found in South Australia and the ACT.
A national silicosis taskforce is preparing an interim report for Health Minister Greg Hunt on the “epidemic” for the end of the year.
“We’re not surprised with the dramatic rise in diagnoses that we’re seeing across the country. We’re representing and currently speaking with workers all around the country,” Mr Singh said in a statement to news.com.au.
“The number of affected stonemasons is indicative of the epidemic we’re faced with due to unsafe workplace practices associated with cutting and fabricating engineered stone which contains lethal silica dust.
“This national crisis needs to be tackled with a co-ordinated response at federal level.”
Mr Gray says he knows plenty of stonemasons either suffering side effects from dust or in similar situations to himself.
“There’s going to be hundreds, thousands, because every company did it like that — everyone cut dry, didn’t know,” Mr Gray said.
But most of all he is playing the waiting game with an illness that he has no real idea of what the long-term impact will be.
Mr Gray is engaged to be married to his long-term partner Karissa Wright, with whom he shares two children and is a stepfather to two more.
“You don’t know what’s in the future — doctors don’t know, specialists don’t really know, there’s no cure for it, there’s nothing you can do. There’s just wait and see,” he said.