Dangers of crushed quartz production
Over the past decade, engineered stone countertops made from crushed quartz have taken over the U.S. market. They come in a range of colors and patterns, and manufacturers talk up their advantages.
But compared to natural stone, these slabs often contain much higher levels of crystalline silica — as much as 95%. While the countertops are not a danger to the consumers who’ve put them in their homes, if inhaled during fabrication, can cause silicosis, which destroys the lungs. Workers who cut and shape those slabs often work in a haze of silica dust, and many are now becoming sick.
The rise of engineered stone countertops, preferred for their heat resistance and variety of colors, has overshadowed the grave health risks associated with their production.
Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary critical care physician at UCLA Medical Center, said she talks to patients with silicosis “almost weekly.” A study Fazio led last year found that in California, nearly a fifth of the workers who got silicosis on the job died.
“Yesterday, I had a patient, he’d had a cough he didn’t really think anything of. And I basically told him that he was gonna need a lung transplant or he was gonna die in the next couple of years,” said Fazio.
The disease especially impacts immigrant Latino workers who dominate the industry. The disease has not only endangered workers’ lives, but also placed a heavy emotional and financial burden on their families.
“This doesn’t need to be happening. Right? This is a completely preventable disease, and it’s killing people that all they want to do is go to work and provide for their families every day. You have the right to go to work and have your work not kill you,” said Fazio.
Dennys Williams, 36, is a worker from California, who received a double lung transplant two weeks ago, a fate he never anticipated when he began working with engineered stone. Doctors say, if he’s lucky, it may let him live to his mid-forties.
“You live with the pain. It’s an inexplicable pain. I have pain every day,” Williams said.
No one, Williams said, told him he needed protection from the dust as he did his job.
“I wouldn’t wish this upon my worst enemy,” said Williams.
Along with Williams, there’s Arturo Bautista, a 56-year-old father of three who says he has to keep working despite being diagnosed with silicosis.
Gustavo Reyes-Gonzalez, 34, also from California, had to have a lung transplant in February of 2023, but still faces the likelihood of a shortened life. He also said he was never told of the dangers when he first started working.
Now, workers are filing a lawsuits.
Their attorney, James Nevin, said, “Many of these workers are in their twenties, their thirties, their forties, and they will be dead within a year if they don’t get a lung transplant. The manufacturers knew all that. They knew exactly this is what was going to happen.”
The manufacturers declined to comment on the lawsuits. An industry group, the Silica Safety Coalition, said exposure to silica dust is “preventable” if fabrication shops comply “with state and federal OSHA regulations and requirements.” Another, the Engineered Stone Manufacturers’ Association, said “licensing programs and enhanced regulatory oversight” are the keys to protecting workers.
In December, Australia banned engineered stone, citing the industry’s failure to protect workers from silica dust exposure. This move has prompted questions about the safety practices in fabrication shops in the United States, where the issue of silica dust remains a pressing concern. Australian authorities said it’s not clear how protective those lower-silica products are for workers.
California has implemented temporary emergency regulations to safeguard workers, and some manufacturers are now offering products with lower silica content. However, the effectiveness of these measures in preventing silicosis remains uncertain.
Joseph Mondragon, 33, said he has been around the Omaha, Nebraska, stone-cutting shop his father owns since he was 15 years old. Mondragon said he is just now getting warnings about the dangers of engineered stone cutting.
“It’s scary just to know that we’re out here making a living and people get sick over some dust that we didn’t really have no knowledge of,” he said.
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First published on February 6, 2024 / 12:57 PM EST
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