Silicosis, an incurable, progressively disabling, and sometimes deadly lung disease is on the rise among stone workers due to the increasing popularity of “engineered stone” countertops. The countertops are made from processed quartz with 90 percent of silica levels, or twice the amount found in granite. When silica is inhaled by those working with the stone, the dust that is created by cutting or drilling can cause swelling in the lungs and chest lymph nodes, The New York Times reports.
Tiny crystalline silica particles are released when engineered stone is cut and finished. Upon inhalation of the silica dust, a process can start that may lead to silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or kidney disease. In order to reduce the risk posed by silica exposure, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently announced long-delayed rules, reports the Times.
Engineered stone products first became popular outside the United States. In Israel, about 300 workers have silicosis and of those, 22 have undergone lung transplants, according to Dr. Mordechai R. Kramer, head of the Institute of Pulmonary Medicine in Petah Tikva, Israel.
“It is the people who get the slabs and cut them to size who are at risk,” said Dr. Paul D. Blanc, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, a specialist in occupational health, wrote the Times.
Imports to the U.S. grew by approximately 50 percent from 2013 to 2014 because consumers find the engineered stone countertops attractive, durable, and easy to clean as well as cheaper than granite countertops. Major manufacturer’s products are sold under the brand names of Zodiaq, Caesarstone and Silestone according to the Times.
Consumers buy countertops through retail store where they choose the colors and styles. A contractor goes to a customer’s home to measure and then cuts, drills and finishes the top in a workshop.
In the U.S. there are safety controls in place that include protective respirators and equipment to trap silica dust, such as power saws that release streams of water. Despite that, a 2013 study at the University of Oklahoma found that safety equipment at countertop fabrication companies was inadequate, reports the Times.