Has Silicosis Resurfaced in Kitchen Countertop Workers?
The rise in popularity of engineered stone, a trendy kitchen and bath countertop choice for many homeowners, may be related to the diagnosis of severe silicosis in a number of workers that manufacture the product. Engineered stone is a tough, stain-resistant kitchen and bath countertop surface that has the look and feel of natural stone. It is made by combining mostly ground quartz with aggregates and binders. To finish the slabs for installation, stone fabricators grind, cut and polish the stone in fabrication shops and in the field.
According to a September 2019 publication by the Center for Disease Control, eighteen cases of silicosis, including two fatalities, were recorded among stone fabrication workers in four U.S. States. Several workers with latent tuberculosis and autoimmune disease, reportedly related to engineered stone fabrication, were also identified. Silicosis is an occupational lung disease caused by inhaling particles of crystalline silica dust that inflame and scar the lung. The scarring is irreversible and the disease can be progressive and potentially fatal. The inhalation of crystalline silica particles can cause inflammation and fibrosis and may be associated with an increased risk of infections, including tuberculosis. Other diseases such as lung cancer, kidney disease, emphysema, and autoimmune disease can also be related to heavy crystalline silica exposures.
Generally, the development of silicosis is associated with significant silica dust exposures and a latency period of ten or more years from exposure to disease onset. In the cases recently studied by the CDC, however, the workers all appear to have worked at fabrication shops over a period of only a few years. Between 2010 through 2018, as engineered stone countertops became a preferred choice for builders and homeowners, quartz surface imports to the United States increased approximately 800 percent. This timing suggests that we may see more silica-related diagnoses relating to this trade in the near future.
Respirable silica is regulated at both the federal and state levels. Silicosis is preventable through dust exposure controls and by the use of proper respiratory protection. Many engineered stone fabrication shops are small businesses, however, and their operators may not be aware of, or may not strictly adhere to, federal and state regulations for safe work practices. Traditionally associated with trades like mining and sandblasting, the emergence of silicosis and related diseases among this new category of workers in a field as popular as construction and home improvement could very well garner the attention of plaintiffs’ attorneys, which in turn may lead to a rise in related claims.
For additional information on this emerging issue, see the CDC article at: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/68/wr/mm6838a1.htm