Quartz Countertop Workers Face Increased Risk for Deadly Lung Disease: Study

Workers with silicosis are often misdiagnosed, not given the proper safety equipment and sometimes continued to work with silica dust from quartz countertops even after a diagnosis.

Individuals who make popular residential quartz countertops face increased risks of developing deadly respiratory damage from the chemical compounds used during the manufacturing process, according to the findings of a new study, which highlights a lack of information about the risks quartz countertop workers face.

In findings published this week in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers reviewed 52 cases of an incurable, potentially fatal lung disease called silicosis among quartz manufacturer workers in California, most of which were male Latino migrant workers.

Silicosis is an irreversible and often deadly respiratory condition caused by silica, a chemical compound that is mixed with naturally occurring quartz to make countertops. It often begins as lung inflammation and scarring and eventually progresses to lung failure.

Fabricated quartz countertops, also referred to as “engineered stone”, pose a significant silicosis hazard for workers because they are exposed to a large volume of silica dust, data shows. In addition to silicosis risks, previous research has also linked silica dust inhalation to lung cancer.

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Quartz Countertop Manufacturing Linked to Lung Disease Risk

The study, conducted by University of California, Los Angeles researchers, identified 52 male patients who were diagnosed with silicosis after exposure to engineered stone in California, using public health data from 2019 to 2022. They used patient interviews and medical records to assess the men’s occupational exposure to crystalline silica.

According to the findings, the male patients had a median age of 45, and 51 of them were Latino immigrants. Many of the patients were uninsured or had very limited health insurance. Nearly half were first diagnosed after having to go to the emergency department due to their symptoms.

The researchers warned that doctors initially failed to diagnose silicosis in 30 of the patients, or 58%. In most of those cases, the men were given a misdiagnosis of bacterial pneumonia or tuberculosis. The delayed silicosis diagnosis often led to patients suffering from advanced progression of the disease before they were properly diagnosed.

Researchers found that a total of 10 of the men died from silicosis complications at a median age of 46. While 11 were referred for lung transplant, only three underwent the procedure, with one dying as a result. Seven of the men were declined a lung transplant, and six of those men died.

The findings indicate the men worked in the quartz countertop manufacturing industry for a median of 15 years, however less than half reported use of water suppression to prevent dust inhalation, and nearly half continued to work in quartz countertop manufacturing even after their silicosis diagnosis.

“In this case series from California, silicosis associated with occupational exposure to dust from engineered stone primarily occurred among young Latino immigrant men. Many presented with severe disease, and some cases were fatal,” the researchers concluded. “The findings highlight the urgent need for clinicians and public health officials to fully address the emerging issue of silicosis among engineered stone countertop fabrication workers through measures such as protecting workers from exposure to silica dust in the workplace, timely diagnosis of disease, provision of needed medical care, and medical surveillance programs.”

The researchers recommended expanded medical care for quartz countertop workers to shorten diagnosis time and improve treatment options. They also urged quartz countertop companies to provide protective equipment for all manufacturing workers, such as dust masks, to reduce silicosis risks.

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