Young workers dying from incurable disease associated with stone countertops

The Los Angeles Times had a disturbing article by Emily Alpert Reyes last week regarding the deadly illness popping up among workers involved in the cutting of manufactured stone for use in kitchen countertops. The illness – silicosis – is an incurable and suffocating disease that is killing workers across California – many of them quite young. The article details how engineered stone – the material of choice in kitchen countertops – has a higher concentration of silica than natural stone. When workers cut the stone without appropriate protection, tiny particles of crystalline are expelled into the air. Those workers then unknowingly inhale the silica particles. Over time, the silica dust particles cause inflammation in the lungs that leads to the formation of lung nodules and scarring in the lungs known as pulmonary fibrosis. Once afflicted the lung capacity decreases, followed by shortness of breath, lung failure, and eventually death. Historically silicosis took 10-30 years to develop. But pulmonary physicians, who normally see silicosis patients in their 60’s and 70s are now seeing an alarming number of patients in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Dr. Jane Fasio, a pulmonary critical care doctors at Olive-View UCLA Medical center noted “They’re young guys who essentially have a terminal diagnosis.”

Reyes talked to young predominantly Hispanic workers who cut, polished and installed countertops in and around Los Angeles. The workers detailed how dust was everywhere and few, if any protections were given to the workers. Leobardo Segura Meza, only 27, described how he has to hustle home from the park with his young kids – before his oxygen tank runs out. Meza knew of two co-workers who had already died of silicosis, while waiting for lung transplants.

Non-profit groups such as Pacioma Beautiful are sending volunteers to local industrial parks to warn workers of the dangers. Unfortunately many of the workers are day laborers, and have little knowledge of the disease, and, due to economic hardship, take stone work positions in facilities that offer little, if any protection against airborne silica. “Wet saws” – saws that spray water onto the stone to minimize airborne particles and NIOSH respirators are the two primary measures that companies can offer to workers as a way to minimize foreign particle inhalation. But many smaller shops lack the budget, or conscience, to make those means available.

And the risk to workers is very real. Reyes notes that 1 in 5 Australian stone workers have the disease. Workplace safety regulators in California estimate that approximately 12-20% of the 4000 industry workers in California have silicosis. A recent study of California workers with the disease revealed a death rate of nearly 20%, with the median age at death only 46.

While California safety regulators are now drafting emergency safety rules to protect workers, some lawyers representing sick workers feel engineered stone is simply too dangerous to be used safely, and have called for a ban of the product.

Engineered stone is the predominant material used in countertops. And its popularity is expected to increase.