Silicosis Risk

Countertops Putting Lives at Risk

Researchers say some modern countertop materials are causing deadly lung ailments.
By: | April 21, 2014

Some of the more popular countertops are putting workers at risk, say government scientists. Engineered-countertop workers in Israel and Spain have developed silicosis, and researchers in the U.S. fear it may just be a matter of time before there are cases here.

The quartz surfacing product is made by combining quartz aggregate with resins to create a product for home building and improvement. The products come under various names, including CaesarStone, Silestone, Zodiaq, and Cambria.

The products were first introduced in the 1980s in Israel and Spain and have now grown worldwide. Workers who make and install the products are at risk for overexposure to silica released during sizing, cutting, grinding and polishing, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Prolonged exposure to silica has been linked to silicosis, or scarring of the lungs, as well as chronic obstructive lung disease, lung cancer, kidney and connective disease, and tuberculosis, the researchers say. It typically takes at least 10 years of exposure to develop chronic silicosis, and people may have no symptoms for a while.

Silicosis cases have been reported among 25 engineered-stone countertop workers in Israel and 46 workers in Spain. The patients were between 29 and 37 years old and had worked in the industry between nine and 17 years.

“While no reported cases of silicosis in the U.S. have been linked to quartz surfacing materials, recent research indicates that exposures to silica-containing dust while working with these materials may approach or exceed the OSHA current Permissible Exposure Limit,” NIOSH said. “Multiple inspections by OSHA have documented overexposures to silica at stone fabrication shops working with a combination of natural stone and quartz surfacing materials. These overexposures would indicate U.S. workers in this industry are at risk of developing silicosis as well as the other multiple health conditions associated with silica exposure.”

Keeping dust out of the air is the key to protecting workers. NIOSH offers the following suggestions:

Whenever possible, cutting, grinding, and shaping should be done wet.

Ventilation and filtration systems should be used to collect silica-containing dust at its source.

If these engineering controls fail to eliminate the risk, then use of at least a NIOSH-approved N95 respirator is recommended.

Meanwhile, NIOSH is also seeking assistance for its research. Employers with state-of-the-art engineered stone countertop manufacturing facilities that are willing to work with NIOSH are urged to contact the agency.

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Nancy Grover is the president of NMG Consulting and the Editor of Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected].

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