Workers cutting crushed quartz countertops say they develop deadly lung disease: ‘I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy’

Workers cutting crushed quartz countertops say they develop deadly lung disease: ‘I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy’

Over the past decade, engineered stone countertops made from crushed quartz have taken over the American market. They come in a range of colors and styles, and manufacturers tout their advantages.

But compared to natural stone, these slabs often contain much higher levels of crystalline silica – up to 95%. While countertops do not pose a risk to consumers who place them in their homes, if inhaled during manufacturing, they can cause silicosis, which destroys the lungs. The workers who cut and shape these panels often work in a fog of silica dust, and many are now falling ill.

The advent of engineered stone countertops, favored for their heat resistance and color versatility, has overshadowed the serious health risks associated with their production.

Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary critical care physician at UCLA Medical Center, said she speaks to patients with silicosis “almost weekly.” A study by Fazio last year found that nearly one-fifth of workers who contracted silica on the job in California died.

“Yesterday, I had a patient, he had a cough that he hadn’t really thought about. I basically told him he was going to need a lung transplant or he was going to die in the next two years,” he said. Fazio.

The disease particularly affects Latino immigrant workers who dominate the industry. The disease not only endangered the workers’ lives, but also imposed a heavy emotional and financial burden on their families.

“This doesn’t need to happen, right? This is a completely preventable disease, and it’s killing people and 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 your job doesn’t kill you,” Fazio said.

Dennis Williams, 36, a worker from California, underwent a double lung transplant two weeks ago, a fate he never expected when he started working with engineered stone. If he’s lucky, doctors say, he may be allowed to live until his mid-40s.

“You live with pain. It’s inexplicable pain. I feel pain every day,” Williams said.

Williams said no one told him he needed protection from dust while doing his job.

“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Williams said.

Alongside Williams is 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 undergo a lung transplant in February 2023, but still faces the possibility of a shortened life. He also said he was never told about the risks when he first started working.

Now the workers are filing lawsuits.

“Many of these workers are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and they will die within a year if they don’t get a lung transplant,” said their lawyer, James Niven. “And the manufacturers knew all about it. They knew.” “That’s exactly what would have happened.”

The manufacturers declined to comment on the lawsuits. An industry group, the Silica Safety Alliance, said exposure to silica dust is “preventable” if manufacturing shops adhere to “state and federal OSHA regulations and requirements.” Another association, the Engineered Stone Manufacturers Association, said “licensing programs and enhanced regulatory oversight” are keys to protecting workers.

In December, Australia banned engineered quarantine, citing the industry’s failure to protect workers from exposure to silica dust. The move has raised questions about safety practices at manufacturing shops in the United States, where the issue of silica dust remains a pressing concern. Australian authorities said it was not clear how well these low-silica products protect workers.

California has implemented temporary emergency regulations to protect workers, and some manufacturers now offer products with lower silica content. However, the effectiveness of these measures in preventing silicosis remains uncertain.

Joseph Mondragon, 33, said he has been walking around his father’s stone cutting shop in Omaha, Nebraska, since he was 15 years old. Mondragon said he is now receiving warnings about the dangers of engineered stone cutting.

“It’s scary to know that we’re out here making a living and people are getting sick because of some dust that we didn’t really know about,” he said.

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