They’re stylish and highly durable, making them a favorite choice for kitchen renovators and designers — but quartz countertops come at a hefty price.
Health experts at the University of California, San Francisco say workers who make quartz countertops are dying young from a deadly lung disease.
The ominously-named ‘black lung’ is caused by inhaling tiny particles of dust that lead to small cuts in the lungs.
In their study, the scientists identified 52 cases in California over the past decade — all in men in their 40s who had worked with countertops for about 15 years. Ten participants died before the study was completed.
Dr Shefali Gandhi, a lung specialist and co-author of the study, said: ‘If we don’t stop this now, we’re going to have hundreds more cases, not thousands.
‘Even though we’ve stopped it now, we’re going to see these cases for decades to come because [silicosis] It takes years to develop.’
Researchers warn that when quartz countertops are cut, they release silica dust, which can damage human lungs (stock).
Chest x-rays of workers who developed silicosis are shown above
Silica dust is emitted by quartz stone when it is cut, leading to workers’ lung scarring, breathing problems and silicosis or the condition ‘black lung’.
This condition prevents the body from absorbing oxygen, leading to a number of health problems including persistent coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue and weight loss.
But there is little risk to homeowners, as worktops rarely release dust after installation.
Among the patients in the study was Leonardo Segura-Meza, a Mexican who immigrated to Los Angeles in 2012 and found work as a stone mason.
He had been cutting and grinding quartz countertops for a decade since age 17 before being diagnosed with silicosis.
The 27-year-old now has to 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 expect the phone to ring telling me to come to the hospital to get my new lung,’ he said after being hospitalized last month with a collapsed lung.
He took precautions, including wearing a mask, but it failed to stop the silica particles from entering his lungs.
In the study published today in JAMA Network, scientists looked at data from the California Department of Public Health on cases of silicosis linked to quartz.
They found 52 cases, which were among men with an average age of 45 who had been working with quartz countertops for about a decade and a half.
Ten participants died during the study from silicosis, with a mean age of 46 years.
Eleven people were put forward for lung transplants, of which seven were rejected – with six dying – and of the three that were accepted, two have already died.
Dr Jane Fazio, a pulmonary specialist at Olive View-UCLA, who was involved in the study, said: ‘The increase in silicosis in stone builders over the past 10 years and the accelerated progression of the disease have transformed the paradigm of an all-but-forgotten disease in the US.
“Our study demonstrates particularly severe morbidity and mortality among vulnerable youth, underinsured and possibly undocumented Latino immigrant workers.”
Silicosis became a concern in the United States in the 20th century when it was repeatedly diagnosed among coal miners who inhaled dust from the rock they mined.
It shows the number of cases diagnosed from 2010 to 2022 There has been an increase over the past few years
Incidences have decreased as mining has become mechanized, but scientists now fear the disease may be making a comeback among stone workers.
The first US case of silicosis linked to engineered stone was identified in Texas in 2015, and since then, more and more cases have been reported. California is at the center of the boom.
Quartz countertops are made from a type of manufactured stone composed of crushed quartz crystals bound together with resin.
During the manufacturing process, quartz releases silica dust that can be inhaled by workers and go deep into their lungs.
This leads to scarring and inflammation, damaging 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 little option but to rely on an oxygen machine to wait for a lung transplant. The damage is irreversible.
An estimated 100,000 people in the United States are at risk because they are employed in quarrying.
An Australian government screening program found a silicosis rate of 19.5 percent among 1,053 workers who were screened for the disease.
A report released this year by California safety officials found that between 2019 and 2020, about 72 percent of the state’s 800 stone-making warehouses are ‘probably out of compliance with existing silica standards’.
The state has now voted to fast-track new regulations on the manufacture of quartz worktops.
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