Fancy quartz countertops are killing people: new study

Here’s a kitchen design trend to die for.

Quartz countertops are now the most popular choice among home renovators and designers because of their durability and resistance to stains, scratches and heat.

But that beauty comes at a deadly price: The workers who make quartz countertops are dying of lung disease at a young age, medical researchers say in a new report.

“Every day I hope that the phone rings telling me to come to the hospital to get my new lungs,” former countertop maker Leobardo Segura-Meza said in a statement.

Segura-Meza, 27, started working as a stone fabricator in Los Angeles 10 years ago, cutting, grinding and polishing countertops as a teenager. He routinely wore protective equipment like a mask and used dust-reducing tools.

But he went to the emergency room with shortness of breath in February 2022, and a lung biopsy revealed he had advanced silicosis.

Although Segura-Meza has been approved for a lung transplant, he fears he’ll run out of time. Two of his fellow countertop workers died while they were on the waiting list.

lung with silicosis
Known among coal miners as “black lung,” silicosis is a deadly lung disease caused by inhaling very small particles of silica.
Courtesy of David W. Cugell, MD.

What is silicosis?

Known among coal miners as “black lung,” silicosis is a lung disease caused by inhaling very small particles of silica, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Symptoms of silicosis include persistent coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, weight loss and fibrosis (scarring) of the lungs. Roughly 2.3 million US workers are exposed to silica in the workplace, including 2 million in construction and 300,000 in other industries, according to the American Lung Association.

There are treatments available, but there is no cure for silicosis, and as the disease gets progressively worse, it is often fatal.

worker cutting quartz countertop
Workers who make quartz countertops are being diagnosed with silicosis at alarming rates, according to medical experts.
Getty Images

What are quartz countertops made of?

Countertops known as “quartz” are actually made of an artificial material that includes crushed silica (quartz) with resins, dyes and glass, according to the authors of the study, published Monday in the journal of JAMA Internal Medicine.

In 2021, these types of synthetic stone surpassed plastic laminate to become the most used countertop material in the US, marking the first time in decades that laminate was not the most popular countertop material, market research shows.

Some market experts forecast that the demand for quartz countertops will grow to $13 billion by 2027 as consumers desire “uniqueness and individuality, which leads them to look for countertops that can be customized to suit their unique preferences and requirements.”

And quartz countertops are frequently chosen on popular home renovation shows as the “go-to” countertop material for fashionable kitchen and bathroom designs.

But quartz countertops contain more than triple the silica content of natural materials like granite or marble, and the health impact of quartz countertops became apparent soon after they hit the market.

quartz countertops
Synthetic quartz countertops come in a dazzling array of colors and patterns, making them a consumer favorite.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Silicosis, once a forgotten disease, is back

The first US case of silicosis linked to engineered stone was identified in Texas in 2015, and since that time, California has emerged as an epicenter of the disease. 

Throughout the US, an estimated 100,000 stone fabricators are at risk for silicosis associated with exposure to silica. An Australian government screening program found a silicosis rate of 19.5% among 1,053 workers who were screened for the incurable disease.

In the latest study, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, UCLA and the California Department of Public Health found 52 California quartz countertop workers with silicosis. Twenty of them had advanced silicosis, and 10 died before the study concluded.

Should quartz countertops be banned?

“Our paper raises the alarm,” said Dr. Sheiphali Gandhi, a UCSF pulmonologist and co-author of the study. “If we don’t stop it now, we’re going to have hundreds if not thousands of more cases. Even if we stopped it now, we’re going to be seeing these cases for the next decade because [silicosis] takes years to develop.” 

The researchers called for public health officials, doctors and policymakers to implement measures to better protect workers from exposure to silica dust, more quickly diagnose cases of the disease or even ban quartz countertops altogether.

Australia has considered banning the product but has not yet done so, instead developing regulations to help reduce the risk of silicosis through better air monitoring, training and reporting.

In 2019 and 2020, California safety officials investigated the state’s countertop industry and found that about 72% of the 808 fabrication shops operating in the state were “likely out of compliance with the existing silica standard,” putting hundreds of workers at risk of silicosis, according to NPR.

Last month, the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion directing the county’s director of public health to report within 90 days “on the options to ban the sale, fabrication and installation of silica fabricated stone in the County,” according to LAist.

Additionally, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has begun drafting emergency rules surrounding the manufacture and use of engineered quartz products.

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