Joanna McNeill’s only symptoms were a mild cough and fatigue when an abnormality in her lungs was discovered during a routine test.
But the single mother of two, from Melbourne, later discovered she was suffering from an unpredictable and fatal lung disease, silicosis, caused by inhaling dust particles at the quarry where she worked.
The 36-year-old woman had worked at the quarry for six years, returning every day covered in a layer of dust containing silica, present in certain forms of rock, sand and clay.
Despite working partly as a security guard at the quarry, Joanna told FEMAIL she was unaware of the deadly damage silica dust could cause, calling it the “next asbestos”.
Since her diagnosis in 2019, Joanna is now weakened by the illness, unable to work and constantly visiting hospital as her immune system weakens by the day.
She is fighting for change in the construction industry to raise awareness and protect workers from the dangers of this little-known airborne substance.
Mother-of-two Joanna McNeill (pictured) developed a fatal and incurable lung disease from breathing silica dust during her six years working in a quarry.
Joanna had almost no symptoms when a routine medical evaluation revealed an abnormality in her lungs that turned out to be a condition called silicosis.
Joanna said she was shocked when her doctor called to inform her she had silicosis, an incurable lung disease caused by inhaling tiny particles of silica.
“To be honest, he could have told me a million things. I didn’t know if I was listening,” she said.
“I started Googling everything because I was digesting what he had just told me. There was just nothing nice about it, I was like, ‘Wow, actually I probably shouldn’t read that.’
Silicosis will cause Joanna’s lungs to deteriorate over time. Eventually, she will have trouble breathing.
She developed the disease while working in a quarry in Victoria, in an office 90 meters from where machines were crushing rocks and releasing dust into the air.
“I could taste it on my lips. Your clothes are full of dust. » Joanna said, even though she didn’t work in the quarry herself.
The 36-year-old woman worked at the quarry where she returned every day covered in a layer of dust containing silica, present in certain forms of rock, sand or clay.
“I was working in a portable that had holes in the floor. Yes, we had cleaner to clean up, but the dust was so thick we couldn’t even clean it off.
Part of Joanna’s job at the quarry was to implement safety measures for workers, but she had never been informed or even heard of the risks that silica dust could pose.
“Not once would we talk about the dangerous substances inside. Part of my job was also to buy safety PPE, but we never discussed things about dust or what we could do to minimize dust,” she recalls.
“When you work in a quarry, you have to do inductions and nothing says anything about the site containing silica.”
Silica is an invisible, translucent mineral found in dust created when cutting, crushing, drilling, grinding or polishing certain types of rock, stone, sand and clay.
After six years of unknowingly breathing the particles, scars on her lungs had appeared on a scan taken during a medical evaluation Joanna underwent to return to work after maternity leave.
Over the next six months, while continuing to work, she had several appointments to monitor the abnormality before undergoing a grueling lung biopsy.
At the time, she had no symptoms other than a “persistent cough” and fatigue which she attributed to working a lot and being a mother to her two daughters, Matilda, seven, and Charlie, five. .
Joanna’s silicosis is slowly progressing, her fatigue and shortness of breath are getting worse – but it has already ‘taken her life’
Since her diagnosis, Joanna’s fatigue has “increased significantly” and she has been in and out of hospital as silicosis has left her immunocompromised.
The mother was hospitalized after contracting a virus transmitted by one of her daughters which quickly developed into pneumonia.
“It triggered an autoimmune response in my body, so I suffered arthritis and radiation was applied to my blood.” I didn’t even realize I was in the hospital for eight days, the pain was so immense I couldn’t see the light,” she said.
“I remember saying I would rather give birth 10,000 times than sit there in pain.” It was just crazy. These are the challenges I continue to face.
Joanna’s silicosis is slowly progressing, with her fatigue and shortness of breath getting worse – but it has already “taken the life out of her”.
“I obviously have silicosis, but my body’s immunity is quite low, so I’m very susceptible to infections. There’s silicosis which can kill you, but pneumonia which can also kill you,” he said. -she declared.
“It offsets a lot of the autoimmune systems in your body because your body is struggling.”
Although she doesn’t know how long she has before the disease “takes her away,” she said she desperately wants to go at least a year without having to go to the hospital.
“It’s debilitating for me and it’s a huge burden for my children,” she added.
Although she doesn’t know how long she has left before the disease “takes” her, she said she desperately wants to go at least a year without having to go to the hospital (pictured with her daughters Matilda, seven years, and Charlie, five)
“They’re in therapy and the therapist told me they want to sleep in my bed every night because they’re afraid I won’t wake up.”
Unable to find suitable employment for her condition, Joanna used her energy to work with unions and governing bodies to highlight the damage that little-known but common dust can cause and to implement change. on construction sites.
“I believe companies need to enforce silica risks. I know for a fact that people still don’t know what they’re working with. There are so many people who probably don’t even know they have silicosis,” she said.
“This absolutely needs to be monitored and documented. And this is not only true for the workers, but also for the neighborhoods around these mining sites.
Cases of silicosis are on the rise as more than 600,000 Australian workers are exposed to silica dust and 40 per cent of workers are unaware of the risks of exposure.
Joanna spoke out about the dangers of silica dust which she said “will be the next asbestos”, and received a flood of messages from concerned residents.
She said anyone concerned about their risk of silicosis should consult the Lung Foundation as the organization launches its Another One Fights the Dust campaign.
The Lung Foundation urges all trades and those who work on construction sites to do so. Healthy lungs at work quiz to understand their risk of silicosis.