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Popular Quartz Countertops Give Rise to Serious Injuries in Workers

Apr 5, 2016

Safety experts are warning that "engineered stone" countertops, which are growing in popularity, may cause increased risks to workers who handle these products.

The countertops are manufactured of silica, a mineral that has been associated to the serious and life-threatening lung disease, silicosis, according to The New York Times.

The symptoms of chronic/classic silicosis are not often obvious, which means that those working with countertops made of silica should receive chest X-rays to determine if silica-related lung damage has occurred. Early symptoms may include shortness of breath when exercising and clinical signs of poor oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange. As the disease progresses, patients may experience fatigue, extreme shortness of breath, cough, and respiratory failure; lung cancer and diseases including tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney and autoimmune diseases have been linked to silica overexposure, according to a prior National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health/ Occupational Safety and Health Administration (NIOSH/OSHA) report.

Overexposure to respirable crystalline silica has long been known to cause silicosis and has been the focus of lawsuits for years, according to a prior Law360 report. In fact, steel workers and workers in other industries have been filing silicosis claims for decades. Workers in the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) industry are also beginning to report cases of silicosis tied to their exposure to silica, common in fracking activities.

"Engineered stone" countertops are made from processed quartz, a material containing silica levels that are as high as 90 percent, double the amount found in granite, notes The New York Times. To make the slabs, quartz stones are crushed, mixed with plastic, and shaped; colors and additional materials are added to create an array of surface finishes and textures that are durable, easy to clean, and less expensive than granite counters. When the engineered stone slabs are cut and finished for kitchens or bathrooms, silica particles are released. When workers inhale these particles, which are released in large amounts, the silica may lead to a variety of potentially deadly diseases, including silicosis, lung cancer, and kidney disease. Consumers generally purchase the countertops from stores, choosing what they desire from samples. A contractor takes measurements at the home and completes the countertop in a workshop, The New York Times reported.

OSHA recently announced rules meant to significantly lower silica exposure among workers. Federal officials and silica experts also re-stated warnings concerning silica risks associated with countertops, according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, while the countertops to not pose risks to homeowners, workers handling the engineered stone, especially if working without appropriate equipment, may be in danger of serious risk. "It is the people who get the slabs and cut them to size who are at risk," said Dr. Paul D. Blanc, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who specializes in occupational health.

In other countries, where engineered stone products first gained popularity, there are mounting silicosis cases. Some 300 workers in Israel have been diagnosed with silicosis, which includes 22 cases involving lung transplants, according to the head of the institute of Pulmonary Medicine in Petah Tikva, Israel, Dr. Mordechai R. Kramer. In a 2012 article published in Chest Journal, a report of a silicosis outbreak in Israel was discussed and followed in 2014 by a report in The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health concerning a silicosis outbreak in Spain.

U.S. Federal estimates reveal that engineered stone import growth has increased some 50 percent from 2013 to 2014, alone. Key makers, such as DuPont, sell under brand names such as Zodiaq, Caesarstone, and Silestone; Caesarstone Sdot-Yam is an Israel-based company; and Cosentino, is headquartered in Spain, wrote The New York Times.

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