American Horror Story: Silicosis

 

Nothing is more American than baseball, apple pie and a good old lawsuit. Which is why the recent attention to silicosis and the proliferation of class action lawsuits related to this incurable disease in the US should come as a shock to no one.

Silicosis was a major issue in the 1930s when the Hawk’s Nest mining disaster resulted in a staggering 700 deaths out of 2000 miners who were clearing a tunnel through a mountain that was almost entirely formed of crystalline silica. They were buried in unmarked graves on the side of the road.

silica dust in hand

Photo: Silica dust generated when mining and cutting stone. Source: https://healthtimes.com.au/

 

Now, attention has turned to the surfacing industry and the makers and manufacturers who are responsible for protecting those that are mining, cutting and polishing our coveted granite, marble and quartz countertops. We know that countertops form the backdrop for our entertaining, prepping, and cooking laden lives but the shift from brown and bronzy granite to banal grays and whites, with the occasionally dusky blue pop of muted color, is not in fact as innocuous as it may seem. The trek that a new stone countertop takes from the mine to your kitchen is a dangerous and frightening one, and can result in illnesses and deaths along the way. 

In 2018, OSHA put standards in place to protect workers in the countertop trades, as outlined by this ISFA article. In 2019, NPR shone a light on the issue, which is when the legal letches started to take note. But the awareness and action needed to prevent future silicosis cases are still seriously lacking.

silicosis lung tissue vs healthy lung

Photo: X Ray of healthy lungs and lungs with scar tissue due to silicosis. Source: https://www.dustlessblasting.com/hubfs/silicosis-vs-healthy-lung.jpg

 

Crystalline Silica comprises approximately 20-60% of granite and 75% of quartz countertops.  Picture tiny jagged glass particles becoming airborne when cut and creating a dust that is respirated into the lungs. Like a slasher movie marathon in your lungs, the dangerous dust slices up the lung tissue non-stop. These mini lacerations then form scar tissue as they heal, which after repeated occurrences ultimately prevents the lung tissue from being able to expand, making it very difficult to breathe.

The silicosis crisis is well underway in Australia, India, Israel and Europe, where multiple legal settlements have been made, some for hundreds of millions of dollars. The US lawyer frenzy is just getting hip to this new opportunity, and a simple google search is like watching vultures circle. Try it––type “silicosis lawsuit” in your search bar. It is looming and it is going to be disastrous for those companies who have scoffed at OSHA and put profit over people when it comes to putting these protections in place.

Where does the responsibility lie? It comes down to education about how to protect the workforce. Have we not learned anything about masks since 2020? Yes, they may be inconvenient, but they are designed to protect you. Same goes here. A manufacturer, countertop shop, subcontractor or general contractor needs to protect their employees by providing the right type of protective equipment and the right education about the dangers posed by silica dust. The danger is real but also preventable.

The good news is that there are alternatives to silica-laden surfaces. This horrible story does not have to end with a feeding frenzy to capitalize on a horrific disease. There has been a shift by some of the leaders in the industry, namely Cosentino and Lapitec via Breton. As this Breton article states, the future is crystalline silica free. Additionally, recycled paper composites and recycled plastic or glass surfaces are naturally free of crystalline silica.

The new consumers that are coming to market are demanding social responsibility (and they don’t want to pay a premium for it). Be prepared to answer harder questions from not only the eco-conscious, but the overeducated purchasers. 

Next time you see a construction site drilling concrete blocks with no masks on you can be sure that there will be silica exposure. Two random guys with a tile saw in a driveway and no masks on? Definite airborne silica exposure. One random guy with a saw in your driveway and a mask on? Maybe safe from silica but RUN.

 

This issue is one viral TikTok video away from being a huge problem for countertop companies. Keep your mind and your options open so you don’t scare the next generation of customers away.

Add Your Comment