Eighteen stone countertop fabrication workers in four states have developed a life-threatening lung disease between 2017 and 2019, two of whom have died, according to a new study by several public health researchers. Several workers have also been diagnosed with autoimmune disease and latent tuberculosis infection.

“Given the serious health hazard and significant number of workers at risk, additional efforts are needed to reduce exposures and improve disease surveillance,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

Stone countertop fabrication workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica, which can cause silicosis, a disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease. Clusters of silicosis have been reported around the world among stone countertop fabrication workers, but only one case in the U.S. in this industry had been previously reported.

Crystalline silica is an abundant natural mineral found in stone, soil, and sand, as well as concrete, brick, mortar, and other construction materials. Quartz is the most common form. Exposure to tiny particles of airborne silica occurs in many industrial and occupational settings; for example, when stone, concrete or brick are sawed into. When this quartz dust is inhaled, the tiny particles can penetrate deep into the lungs. This can lead to silicosis, a progressive, irreversible and potentially disabling disease. Silica exposure is also linked to lung infections, particularly tuberculosis, lung cancer, and emphysema, as well as autoimmune diseases and kidney disease.

Those at greatest risk for silica-related illnesses are quarry and granite workers who cut, polish or grind stone materials, as well as those who work with ceramic, pottery, and refractory brick.

“Recently, silicosis outbreaks have been reported in several countries among workers who cut and finish stone slabs for countertops, a process known as stone fabrication,” the CDC said. “Most worked with engineered stone, a manufactured, quartz-based composite material that can contain (more than) 90% crystalline silica.”

The 18 cases, including the first two silica-related deaths in the U.S. among workers in this industry, identified by the report occurred in California, Colorado, Texas and Washington. “Silica dust exposure reduction and effective regulatory enforcement, along with enhanced workplace medical and public health surveillance, are urgently needed to address the emerging public health threat of silicosis in the stone fabrication industry,” the researchers concluded.

Beasley Allen investigates cases of illnesses including lung disease from occupational and environmental exposure to toxins. For more information, contact Rhon Jones, head of the firm’s Toxic Torts section.

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