Incurable Disease Plaguing Young Stone Cutters

They're being diagnosed with silicosis at higher rates, even in their 20s
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 1, 2023 7:20 AM CDT
Demand for Countertops Is Driving a Deadly Illness
Lung disease caused by silicosis is seen on an X-ray in this file photo.   (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

An incurable lung disease called silicosis is on the rise among stone cutters, particularly young Latino immigrants concentrated in northern Los Angeles. The reason? Increasing demand for more engineered stone countertops, which contain higher levels of silica, the Los Angeles Times reports. And though the disease is not new, it has taken on more urgency as a growing number of workers in San Fernando Valley's stone fabrication hub are being diagnosed in their 20s, 30s, and 40s—instead of in their 60s or 70s, after decades of exposure. Per NPR, there have been at least 10 deaths. "This is a preventable disease," Dr. Nichole Quick of LA's public health department tells the Times, "and we want to take appropriate action to make these workplaces safer."

Working conditions are at the heart of the issue. Without adequate protection from silica dust (like respirators and sprayers to tamp it down), stone cutters are breathing it in. The high concentration kickstarts symptoms like shortness of breath, and ultimately leads to scarring and lung failure. Lung transplants are the only treatment option. Many day workers have never heard of silicosis and lack proper protective equipment in tiny workshops, where violations are rampant. Safety officials in California found 72% of workshops out of compliance with standards. "People have no idea," says pulmonary critical care physician Dr. Jane Fazio, noting that consumers "have a right to know that the countertop that might be the cheapest one may really be costing folks' lives."

Advocates are calling for stricter regulations and increased awareness about the risks associated with engineered stone countertops, but some believe the raw materials contain too much silica to ever be safe. An attorney representing workers who have developed silicosis called the engineered stone "too dangerous to be used safely," adding, "if there's any industrial product that should be banned, this is the product." Efforts are underway to address the crisis in California, with Cal/OSHA drafting emergency standards, while LA County is considering a potential ban on engineered stone (which makes up more than 60% of countertops crafted today). (One teen thought she found quartz, but it ended up being something much more valuable).

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