They’re stylish and extremely durable, making them a go-to choice for kitchen renovators and designers, but quartz countertops come at a deadly price.
Health experts at the University of California, San Francisco say workers who make quartz countertops are dying of lung disease at a young age.
The ominously named “black lung” is caused by the inhalation of small dust fragments that lead to the formation of small cuts in the lungs.
In their study, the scientists found 52 cases diagnosed in California over the past decade, all in men in their 40s who worked with countertops for about 15 years. Ten participants died before the end of the study.
Dr. Sheiphali Gandhi, a lung expert and co-author of the study, said: “If we don’t stop it now, we will have hundreds if not thousands more cases.”
“Even if we stopped it now, we’re going to see these cases for the next decade because [silicosis] it takes years to develop.
Researchers warn that cutting quartz countertops releases silica dust, which can damage people’s lungs (stock)
Pictured above are x-rays of the lungs of workers who have developed silicosis.
Silica dust is released from quartz stone when it is cut, leading to scarring of workers’ lungs, respiratory problems, and the condition silicosis, or “black lung.”
The condition prevents the body from absorbing oxygen, leading to a host of health problems, including a persistent cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, and weight loss.
However, there is little risk to homeowners as countertops rarely release dust once installed.
Among the patients in the study was Leobardo Segura-Meza, a Mexican who immigrated to Los Angeles in 2012 and found work as a bricklayer.
He had been cutting and polishing quartz countertops since he was 17 for a decade before he was diagnosed with silicosis.
The 27-year-old must now rely on an oxygen tank to survive and can no longer support his wife and three young children. He has been approved for a lung transplant but is still on the waiting list for treatment.
“Every day, I wait for the phone to ring and tell me to go to the hospital to have my new lungs put in,” he said after being hospitalized last month with a collapsed lung.
He had taken precautions, including wearing a face mask, but this failed to prevent the silica particles from entering his lungs.
In the study, published today in JAMA Networkthe scientists analyzed data from the California Department of Public Health for quartz-related cases of silicosis.
They found 52 cases, all among men aged 45 on average who had been working with quartz countertops for about a decade and a half.
Ten participants died during the study from silicosis, with an average age of 46 years.
Eleven were proposed for a lung transplant, of which seven were rejected, six died, and of the three accepted, two are already dead.
Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary specialist at Olive View-UCLA who was also involved in the study, said, “The increased number of cases of silicosis among stone makers in the past 10 years and the accelerated progression of the disease transform the paradigm of a nearly forgotten disease in the US.”
“Our study demonstrates severe morbidity and mortality among a particularly vulnerable group of underinsured and likely undocumented young Latino immigrant workers.”
Silicosis raised concern in the United States during the 20th century when it was repeatedly diagnosed in coal miners who had breathed dust from the stones they were digging.
This shows the number of cases diagnosed per year from 2010 to 2022. There has been an uptick in recent years.
Since then, cases have declined as mining has become mechanized, but scientists now fear the disease could make a comeback among stone workers.
The first case of silicosis in the US linked to artificial stone was identified in Texas in 2015, and more and more cases have been reported ever since. California is at the epicenter of the rebound.
Quartz countertops are made from a type of manufactured stone made up of crushed quartz crystals bonded with resin.
During the manufacturing process, quartz releases silica dust that workers can inhale and travel deep into their lungs.
This leads to scarring and inflammation, damaging the tissue and making it less able to absorb oxygen from the air.
The damage triggers silicosis, or ‘black lung’, where the lungs are so damaged that they can no longer absorb enough oxygen for the body. The disease gets its name from coal mining, where it was first reported among workers who had ‘black’ lungs.
Patients diagnosed with the disease are left with no choice but to rely on an oxygen machine while they wait for a lung transplant. The damage is irreversible.
An estimated 100,000 people in the United States are at risk as they are employed as stone manufacturers.
An Australian government screening program found a 19.5 percent silicosis rate among 1,053 workers who were tested for the disease.
A report released by California safety officials this year found that between 2019 and 2020 about 72 percent of the state’s 800 stone fabrication warehouses were “likely not compliant with the existing silica standard.”
The state has now voted to speed up new regulations on quartz countertop production.