A new report raises serious concerns about heath risks from working with “engineered stone” fabricated for kitchen and bathroom countertops, as a number of workers have suffered severe and potentially life-threatening lung infections.
Researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that at least 18 cases of severe silicosis and two deaths have been identified among stone fabrication workers in four states, including California, Colorado, Texas, and Washington.
The findings were published in a recent issue of the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, involving a review of hospital discharge records for data on illnesses with a diagnosis of silicosis.
Silicosis can be caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica. It is a disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease. It is incurable and can only be treated with a lung transplant.
When stone workers cut, polish, and grind engineered stone for countertops, particles of crystalline silica dust are released into the air and inhaled by workers.
The silica may cause inflammation and lead to fibrosis in the lungs. It is progressive, irreversible, and often deadly. Inhaling silica increases the risk of lung infection, tuberculosis, lung cancer, emphysema, autoimmune disease, and kidney disease.
According to CDC researchers, several patients also had autoimmune diseases and latent tuberculosis infections as well as silicosis after exposure to silica dust.
Previously, clusters of cases were reported internationally among stone countertop fabrication workers. However, only one case reported in the U.S., before now.
“Stone fabrication workers, especially those working with engineered stone, are at risk for silicosis,” CDC researchers warn. “Given the serious health hazard and significant number of workers at risk, additional efforts are needed to reduce exposures and improve disease surveillance.”
Engineered stone has become increasingly popular for kitchen and bathroom countertops. From 2010 to 2018, imports increased 800%. Many consumers prefer it because it is less likely to crack or stain. However, engineered stone contains 90% silica compared to granite at 45% or marble at 10%.
Silica dust does not affect consumers once the countertop is installed, but may be a problem when it is being fabricated, because the process produces inhalable dust. The CDC estimates there are more than 8,000 stone fabrication business in the U.S., with many small owners unaware of the danger they may be exposing workers to.
In 2016, OSHA issued new workplace limits on how much silica could be in the air during manufacturing. Yet, in 2017 the Trump Administration ended the OSHA safety program for silica, which would have allowed the agency to conduct special inspections on countertop fabricators. Instead, OSHA can only investigate a workplace complaint or injury.
An Australian study indicated 12% of workers who cut stone had silicosis, and there were 250 known cases of silicosis in Australia. CDC researchers estimate there are probably many more cases of silicosis in the U.S. that haven’t been reported or diagnosed.
A focus on prevention and controlling dust from stone fabricating is crucial, the researchers advised. Fabricators can work with the stone while wet and use vacuum or filtration systems to remove dust from the air to reduce the risk of inhalation.