Rising Health Concern: Engineered Stone’s Toxic Dust Poses a Threat to U.S. Workers

A groundbreaking study conducted by researchers from UC San Francisco and UCLA has unveiled a dire health crisis afflicting workers in the production of artificial stone slabs, commonly used for countertops in the United States. These workers are now facing the grim prospect of developing a fatal and irreversible lung ailment caused by minuscule, toxic dust particles.

This research marks the most extensive investigation into this emerging health emergency in the United States to date. When synthetic quartz undergoes cutting, grinding, and polishing, it releases hazardous dust into the atmosphere, culminating in a condition known as silicosis. While silicosis has long tormented miners and natural stone artisans throughout history, engineered stone presents a significantly graver threat due to its elevated silica content—naturally occurring in sandstone—and the harmful additives such as polymer resins and dyes.

This escalating occupational hazard has been responsible for illness and fatalities among workers, predominantly impacting young Latino men, since the first reported case of silicosis linked to engineered stone surfaced in 2015 in the United States. This startling revelation emerges from a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine.

Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary specialist at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center and one of the study’s co-authors, remarked, “The increasing incidence of silicosis among stone fabricators over the past decade and the rapid progression of the disease have shifted the narrative from a nearly forgotten ailment in the U.S.” She added, “Our research underscores the severe health consequences and fatalities among a particularly vulnerable group of young, underinsured, and likely undocumented Latino immigrant workers.”

The Human Toll of Engineered Quartz:

The risk of silicosis stemming from artificial stone first came to light in Israel in 2012. Since the initial U.S. case of engineered stone-related silicosis was identified in Texas in 2015, California has emerged as an epicenter of the affliction.

Collaborating with the UCSF California Labor Laboratory and the California Department of Public Health, researchers from UCSF and UCLA identified 52 engineered stone workers in California who had been diagnosed with silicosis, with 51 of them being Latino immigrants. Most diagnoses occurred between 2019 and 2022, with twenty patients already having advanced stages of the disease at the time of diagnosis, and tragically, ten had passed away. The median age of these workers was 45 years, with an average work history spanning 15 years.

One poignant example is that of Leobardo Segura-Meza, an immigrant from Mexico who arrived in the U.S. in 2012. Ten years ago, at the age of 17, he found employment in Los Angeles as a stone worker, engaged in cutting and grinding. Despite adhering to safety measures like wearing masks and using dust-reduction tools, Segura-Meza ended up in the emergency room in February 2022, suffering from shortness of breath. A lung biopsy confirmed his diagnosis of silicosis. The 27-year-old has been dependent on an oxygen tank since then, and he can no longer provide for his wife and three young children. Tragically, two of Segura-Meza’s fellow stone workers passed away while awaiting lung transplants. He anxiously waits for the call that could save his life, stating, “Every day I hope that the phone rings telling me to come to the hospital to get my new lungs.” He himself was hospitalized recently due to a collapsed lung.

A Call for Action to Combat the Lethal Stone:

The authors of the study passionately implore public health authorities, healthcare providers, and policymakers to enact measures aimed at better safeguarding workers from silica dust exposure, facilitating quicker disease diagnoses, and even considering the prohibition of the product.

Dr. Sheiphali Gandhi, a pulmonologist from UCSF and co-author of the study, declared, “Our research sounds the alarm. If we don’t take action now, we will witness hundreds, if not thousands, of additional cases. Even if we intervene immediately, these cases will continue to surface for the next decade, as the disease takes years to develop.”

Although no country has yet banned engineered stone products, Australia has contemplated such measures, working on new regulations to mitigate silicosis risks through improved air monitoring, enhanced training, and mandatory reporting. In California, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is contemplating a potential ban, and the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, has initiated the development of emergency regulations.

Furthermore, the study’s authors emphasize the need for early diagnosis and the reduction of further exposure to the disease. This, however, poses considerable challenges, given the limited access to healthcare and the imperative for workers to provide for their families. Among the patients in the study, 45% continued working even after receiving their diagnosis.

Reference: “Silicosis Among Immigrant Engineered Stone (Quartz) Countertop Fabrication Workers in California” by Jane C. Fazio, Sheiphali A. Gandhi, Jennifer Flattery, Amy Heinzerling, Nader Kamangar, Nawal Afif, Kristin J. Cummings, and Robert J. Harrison, published on July 24, 2023, in JAMA Internal Medicine. This study received partial support from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the NIH’s National Cancer Institute.

Recommended Articles

Leave a Reply