There are over a million hobby Opal cutters spread around the world. There are so many people who want to try cutting rough Opal as it is so enjoyable. The end result can be a beautiful bright Opal. Many Opal cutters can make their own equipment or have purchase machines for cutting and polishing but they should be aware of some of the hidden dangers. Opal has a compositions of silica and this silica can cause serious problems in the lungs.
Silicosis can vary in severity and may take years to develop resulting in shortness of breath, dry cough and may cause a heart attack as the heart has to work harder to pump the blood.
Silica is also found in many constructions sites as it can be in the sand, concrete, masonry and granite. If these materials are sawn it produces dust that can contain crystalline silica particles.
The silica dust causes lung disease and lung cancer if the Opal cutter does not have enough water flowing on his cutting wheels or adequate air extraction. The cuter may expose themselves to these fine particles of silica.
National safety guidelines has exposure rates at extremely low levels and this demonstrates how dangerous these particles can be. Exposure Level (REL) of 0.02 mg/m3. So small. Respirable silica particles are hard to see because the particles are so fine.
When cutting Opal, many cutters are heavy handed in pushing the Opal to cut on the diamond tip wheels with low grits below 180. These diamond wheels eat at the potch and many cutters become impatient and rub down too hard. This usually means that not enough water covers the wheel and dust flies into the face of the Opal cutter.
I have seen this many times and even with large water flow running over the wheels you can still see the air covered in minute particles of potch or silica. Even dark potch can contain silica and silica is present in quartz also.
Some cutters make homemade polishing wheels using sandpaper on dob sticks or piston heads and these can have rubber added so its flexible to polish an undulating Boulder Opal. Dry polishing really needs commercial air extractors not a household vacuum as it is not strong enough to clean the particles in the air.
Many Opal cutters will use standard throw away surgical face masks purchased from their local hardware store. These face masks were designed for health professionals in hospital conditions to block bacteria and are not designed for any type of cutting that forms air borne droplets or particles. They are not suited for Opal cutting and offer little protection.
In this image below we see Rob from Mintabie Opals slicing potch which has some Opal colour in it. This material is ideal for make Opal Doublets. Notice his professional facemask respirator? This is the only type of suitable mask you should wear.
You can see small a lapidary cutting machine in the back ground. Most lapidary companies supply these types of saw cutting machines with a 6-inch blade.
Notice how messy it is to cut potch. Many cutters will say I only have few pieces to cut, but even with lots of water flowing direct onto the cutting saw blade, there is a lot particles that will float into the air.
Disposable respirators are also available with two straps to go over your head and these should be rating N95 which means it can filter 95% of particles, but not oil. So remember to use lots of water when cutting and even use a fan to suck or blow air particles away.
Disposable respiratory masks are only designed for one use and need to be fitted tight under your chin and above your nose. The advantage or reusable respirators is that they are designed to fit your face snuggly and they give greater protection than disposable ones.
If you have a lot of cutting to do always use reusable respirators.
We cannot stress how important this is.
In Lightning Ridge I notice lots of funerals for men with throat or mouth cancer. There are no official records kept but it seems like a high proportion of cancer deaths can be related to Opal dust. In the Opal hunters Tv series, we even have Col, an old time Boulder Opal miner with mouth cancer.
Opal cutting is so enjoyable so please take precautions especially when cutting and slabbing Opals and spend a bit more time and effort to enjoy your Opal cutting.
Water can be problem also. When cutting Opal water is your friend and you should always have plenty of water. But stale water can affect your health also. Many cutters keep rough Opal in jars of water so you can see the Opal colours better. In cutting factories you will see old stale water lying in water troughs at the back of cutting machines. Stale water can quickly contain dangerous with pathogenic microorganisms.
Patrik at Rollingstoneopals experienced this when working with parcels of rough Opal. He was in hospital for weeks and had a serious liver infection. They were really surprised that he had this condition and was seriously sick and jaundice.
They actually thought he had been to third world country and drank water as it was a parasite infection from drinking water contaminated with encysted metacercaria that effected his liver. Yes sounds bad and it was bad! Infected water must have splashed into his mouth as obviously you would not drink water in your cutting equipment on purpose.
All Opal cutters should realize the hazards of cutting Opals. The Queensland Government Public health guidelines state that: “Amorphous silica is not regarded as cancer causing agent” Always have a clean and well designed cutting room and enjoy rubbing down Opals safely.
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Thank you. Excellent article. I knew nothing about this so thank you for bringing it to my attention. My father, through his job, was exposed to silica on many occasions. He passed away at 65 from CLL, a type of leukemia typically reserved for senior citizens. He was diagnosed at 38. The rest of his department who worked there as long as he did if not longer (30+ years) all.passed away around the same age from various cancer types. I for one was left broken hearted as my father meant everything to me. So thank you very much. My husband and six children (and grandchildren) are guaranteed to appreciate it as well!
Patrik is fine now and always wears a mask and has commercial air extractors in his cutting rooms.
Enjoy cutting your opals is a safe enviroment