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US workers face risk from the toxic dust emitted by engineered stone


Sep 18, 2023

Workers in the United States who manufacture engineered slate for countertops are at risk of developing silicosis, a deadly lung disease caused by exposure to toxic dust, according to research conducted by the University of California, San Francisco and the University of California, Los Angeles. The investigation revealed that young Latino immigrants are particularly affected by this health crisis, with serious health problems and deaths reported since 2015. The researchers found that workers exposed to tiny particles of toxic dust when cutting, grinding, and polishing synthetic quartz slabs, the most common type of countertop in the US, are developing potentially fatal and irreversible lung disease. This study, which is the largest in the US on this issue, highlights the dangers posed by the high silica concentrations in engineered stone, which contains harmful polymer resins and dyes, making it even more hazardous than natural stone. The first case of silicosis caused by engineered stone was reported in 2015, and since then, the number of cases has been on the rise, impacting young Latino immigrant workers who are underinsured and more likely to be in the country illegally.

Researchers from UCSF and UCLA, in collaboration with the UCSF California Labor Institute and the California Department of Public Health, identified 52 California engineered stone workers diagnosed with silicosis, with 51 of them being Latino immigrants. Most of these cases were diagnosed between 2019 and 2022, and 10 of the patients had already died. The median age of the affected workers was 45 years, with an average work experience of 15 years. One of the victims, Leobardo Segura Meza, a Mexican immigrant who started working as a stone worker in Los Angeles in 2012, is now unable to financially support his family due to his deteriorating health. Despite taking precautions such as wearing a mask and using dust-reducing tools, he was diagnosed with silicosis after visiting the emergency department with breathing difficulties.

The study authors are calling for urgent action to address this issue, including better protection for workers, early diagnosis, and potential product bans. They warn that without intervention, the number of cases will continue to rise, and it will take years to fully realize the impact of this ongoing crisis. While no country has yet banned the product, Australia is considering it and is working on regulations to reduce harm. In California, the possibility of a ban is being considered by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) is drafting emergency rules. The study authors also emphasize the importance of early diagnosis and minimizing further exposure, although they acknowledge that access to healthcare and financial pressures can make these measures challenging for affected workers.

This research was supported by various institutions, including the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

By Editor

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