Severe lung disease found in multiple US countertop workers

Samples of Silestone, a countertop material made of quartz. Cutting the material releases dangerous silica dust that can damage people’s lungs if the exposure to the dust is not properly controlled. (Catie Dull/NPR)

A severe lung disease called silicosis has been found in multiple countertop manufacturer employees around the nation, leading to sickness and sometimes death.

According to NPR, a certain type of countertop referred to as “quartz” can contain as much as 90% crystalline silica, which can cause the disease.

When a patient has silicosis, the lungs become inflamed and causes those with the disease to slowly suffocate.

That’s been known for a long time; silicosis is one of the oldest known occupational hazards. In the 1930s, the Department of Labor even made a workplace safety film called Stop Silicosis, which emphasized that silicosis could be prevented by controlling dust with water sprays and vacuum systems.

The first in the U.S. known to have contracted the disease, presumably from dry-cutting the quartz countertops and being continuously exposed to silica dust, is 42-year-old Ulbester Rodriguez.

NPR spoke with him about the illness, learning that his lungs are so damaged that he has to be on oxygen for about six hours a day and will likely need a lung transplant.

Rodriguez told NPR he took the job to make more money, but that change wound up ruining his life.

Silicosis in Stone Fabrication Workers (CDC)

According to the CDC, workers exposed to the dust made by dry-cutting the quartz can lead to silicosis or other lung infections.

So far, 18 cases of silicosis have been reported by stone fabrication workers across four states, two of them fatal. Several of those patients also had autoimmune disease and latent tuberculosis infection.

Although none of those cases were in Florida, several companies in the state do manufacture quartz countertops.

The CDC says all stone fabrication workers are at risk for silicosis, especially those working with engineered stone like quartz.

Given the serious health hazard and significant number of workers at risk, additional efforts are needed to reduce exposures and improve disease surveillance.

Although there is no cure for the disease, it is preventable. The CDC says stone fabrication employers should be aware of this serious risk to their employees’ health and ensure that they are adequately monitoring and controlling exposure to silica in compliance with the updated silica standards.

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