Episode 36 – Silicosis- what is it?

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In this episode, we will discuss the dangers of silicosis. We are here today with Jessica McNaughton and Julia Antenucci of CaraGreen.

JESSICA: Hi, this is Jessica. 

JULIA: And this is Julia. 

JESSICA: We're here with Build Green Live Green, the CaraGreen podcast on issues facing the green building industry. 

JULIA: And today we're going to be talking about silicosis. 

JESSICA: Silicosis has become increasingly in the news of late. It is an incurable disease that is a result of breathing in silica dust. So, the reason it matters for green building is a lot of our materials including concrete and several of our interior surfacing materials have high amounts of silica. So, when people work with those materials, they can actually get this lung disease. And the exposure levels, they don't have to be that frequent in order to cause the disease. 

JULIA: So how recently has this become an issue in the United States? 

JESSICA: It's been an issue since I think I would say, I mean it's been decades. I would say, you know, in the 30s and 40s there were lawsuits around silicosis and there was diagnosis of it, very common in miners. They actually called it Black Lung, or it was called Miners' Disease because a lot of the, you know, West Virginia coal miners and things like that would get exposed to it. So, it was a known thing, but in a lot of those industries it was largely mitigated. But of late in our industry specifically, specifically countertops, actually it's come to the forefront again and it actually started, it really came to a head in Australia. 

JULIA: So, it came to head in Australia and you know, when did it start coming to light in the United States? When did people start noticing? 

JESSICA: I think the issue in Australia, it really centered around the countertop industry and engineered stone in general. So, because of the prominence of engineered stone internationally, that's when it really kind of came to a head here in the US too. So as recently as a couple of weeks ago, we actually had Erin Brockovich get involved in the Australian lawsuit, and you know, one of the things that I’ve heard repeatedly is we're such a litigious society here in the US that when we get wind of an issue like this, we really latch onto it. So, you're starting to see, you know, when you Google silicosis, if you Googled silicosis last year, you might've got a few hits. Now every law firm has something up on their page. You know, silicosis attorney, silicosis lawsuit. There's all these websites that have now been registered. So, they're really kind of flagging this as potentially the next mesothelioma or big, kind of, class action lawsuit. 

JULIA: Wow. Okay. So, what is being done about this? What action are they taking in Australia? Is there anything happening over here in the States?

JESSICA: So, to go back a little bit and talk about kind of what specific to our industry as I said, concrete and a lot of other base materials are being looked at here. But the major issue for our servicing market is really quartz or engineered stone. And the problem with those materials is the silica content is very high. So, we're talking in the high 90%. So, if 90% of that material is quartz, which is silica, you're getting a lot of exposure. So, the best practices that are should be in place already are that you're using wet cutting and you're using protective equipment. So, you're limiting people's exposure to these things. Because engineered stone and quartz became so popular so quickly, a lot of those controls were no longer put in place or they weren't enforced. So, a lot of the workers were being exposed to high levels of silica dust because they were dry cutting, cutting in your driveway, not using protective equipment. And the companies weren't mandating that their employees use the protective measures that they put in place. A lot of the manufacturers actually had requirements and documents that you had to sign. Well I shouldn't say a lot, but one that I know of had documents that you needed to sign that actually said that if you were going to be using their material you would have those protective measures in place. So, there was at least one example of a company that put those measures in place at the time, but I mean I can tell you that as quartz surfacing took off, those silicosis prevention measures really kind of fell by the wayside in a lot of cases, so, there's potentially a lot of exposure. Like I said, it's just coming to the forefront now. 

JULIA: So, it sounds like a lot of manufacturers putting profits over their people.

JESSICA: Yeah, I think that's one of the things that, you know, we as CaraGreen and what we've put in our blog posts in our coverage of this topic is really, you know, we don't think that your profits should come before the health of your people. I mean, we really focus on healthy materials and healthy products and healthy manufacturing. So yeah, that's exactly what happened here. And it's gone to such an extent that they're actually, there's a potential filing in Australia that is asking for engineered stone to be banned. So, you can't have quartz countertops in your home. And you know, that hasn't passed yet. But it's on the table. And that's how seriously they're taking this, is that there is potentially a ban on quartz surfaces, potentially a ban on engineered stone. 

JULIA: I mean that is huge considering you know, how big of the market quartz takes up and thinking about, you know, how this is going to impact the industry, what do you think this is going to look like for the future of the green building industry? 

JESSICA: Well, I think that people are going to need to start paying attention to how much silica is in the materials that they're using. And you know, of course you want to have the protective measures in place and that's the thing that should happen first. OSHA in the US has recently put in place more stringent requirements around this. They've audited facilities and they've found people that have not been putting the correct protective measures in place. Wet cutting is certainly becoming more prominent with the attention towards silicosis, a lot of stone fabricators are requiring their people to wear equipment. It's not discretionary any longer. They have to wear that equipment. So, I think the industry is taking the right steps. But I think the problem is the exposure happened before, so, you can't go back and unexposed people that may have been exposed in the past. So that is where I think the industry is going to see an impact is once these lawyers start recruiting people for these lawsuits that used to work at some of these stone fabricators, there's going to be an issue. And I think general awareness of architects and designers in the industry, in general, homeowners, once they start getting wind of the silica thing, they're not going to consider how you're manufacturing it. They're going to want low to no silica in their materials. And you know, I think that a lot of manufacturers are going to have to start labeling that way. I've started to see it already. “Silica free,” “low silica”, you know, those things. So, you don't even have to wonder if someone got hurt when you're, you know, in getting your countertop into your kitchen. You don't have to wonder when you know that label is already on there or you've done your research on silica free countertops and you found materials that are better alternatives to, you know, quartz that's already out there and frankly granite and natural stone has high silica content as well. 

JULIA: So, speaking of low to no silica content surfacing materials, do you have any examples that you can tell us? 

JESSICA: Yeah, I think that what I’ve seen most prominently, and actually a lot of the materials are from companies that saw this coming. So, materials like Dekton, Lapitec, and a lot of the new porcelain materials have low silica content, lower silica content than quartz. Quartz is upwards of 90%, a lot of the natural stones, you know, those can fall in the 20 to 50% range. And a lot of these porcelains are, you know, sub 20% and the sintered stones, those can be, you know, sub 15% and then Lapitec specifically has colors that are actually zero silica. So that's the only stone material that I know on the market, Lapitec sintered stone, that actually has the zero silica. Then there's other materials like PaperStone which have never had silica. So, PaperStone’s a nice, natural, organic, made in the USA, hard surfacing product that can be substituted for stone and it's never had silica in its manufacture. 

JULIA: Wow. So, it seems like looking to the future of surfacing in the green building industry, a lot of people are not just considering, you know, the health of the planet, but the health of the occupants and those that are manufacturing the materials as well, and these lower silica to no-silica options really speak to that mission.

JESSICA: Right. And we've had podcasts in the past where we've talked about the evolution of the word “green” and it used to mean, you know, recycled content and all this, you know, kind of local material and so on. But it's really moved into this idea of health, like you said. And it's not just about the health of the people in the space, but the health of the industry that got it there. So even when you're mining quartz and you're mining granite, those mining communities, they're exposed to silica dust too. It's really hard to, you know, have an entire village wet mining a stone product. It just, it's not very realistic. And as much as we tried to put good practices in place, those stone and quartz mined products introduce a lot of this silica dust into the air and not just to the people that are doing the mining, but the families that live in those communities as well. So, you know, as more attention gets drawn towards silicosis- and it's an incurable disease, you literally breathe in that silica dust and it scars your lung tissue. So, you end up not being able to breathe, you're more likely to get the flu, you're more likely to get lung cancer, you're more likely to get tuberculosis. It is a big deal. So, this is not something, and it's not something that you have, you catch immediately. Right, you can have chronic silicosis that can take decades to form. You can have acute silicosis, which comes on early on, you know, within a couple of years or even weeks of exposure for a large amount of silica dust. And then there's also like an accelerated silicosis where you may get symptoms five years in and then you just go downhill quickly. So, silicosis is, it's a big deal. And a lot of the companies in Europe that have made quartz in the past, they've known that this is coming because the lawsuits are already there. So, with those lawsuits, they've drawn attention to the new surfacing materials and tried to limit the amount of silica in them, which is why you see a lot of these porcelains and sintered stones. And that's the new product category, that's going to be what people look to when they're trying to get away from these high-silica materials. So, you're going to be looking at the Lapitecs and the PaperStones and the porcelains, you know, and you're going to have to find products that just do better for the planet. I mean, that's our whole mantra at CaraGreen is create better. And you know, we try to curate these products that have done a better job. And you know, we started off with recycled content and local and rapidly renewable, and now as we see more of this downstream industry impact or upstream industry impact, you know, we're starting to bring in those materials that just do better for people throughout the entire supply chain. 

JULIA: So where can we find more resources about silica as this story continues to unfold?

JESSICA: I mean, I personally have a Google alert, so I see a lot of the news around silica exposure and silicosis because we are deeply entrenched in the stone fabricator industry and a lot of those people are our partners. So, you know, we want to stay apprised of it so that we can keep them up to speed and they know what they can do, you know, to make sure they're protected and that they're protecting their workers enforcing those things. So, I subscribe to Google alerts and you know, at CaraGreen on our podcast, you know, obviously we're covering it here on our podcast. We also have it on our blog posts, CaraGreen’s Instagram, @caragreenproducts, where we're constantly covering it, our Facebook page. So, we've really stayed on top of it. In general, a Google search will give you an overview of silicosis, but if you really kind of want the countertops perspective and the quartz and engineered stone perspective, I think we do a good job of that on our blog posts.

JULIA: So that's www.caragreen.com/blog

JESSICA: Right. And also following us on LinkedIn is where we tend to post a lot of the industry articles. So, CaraGreen's LinkedIn page is also a great resource. You know, a lot of people kind of collaborate with us there and share with us articles that we can then share with the rest of the industry. 

JULIA: Awesome. 

JESSICA: All right, well you know, one thing I do want to say about silicosis is, it's not meant to be a scare tactic, it's meant to draw attention to the fact that, you know, we need to be responsible for our workers and our employees and make sure that they're in a safe working environment. And you know, as you said, it's, you know, people before profit. You know, at the end of the day, you're going to be a good profitable company if you've got good, healthy people. This is Build Green Live Green. This is Jessica. 

JULIA: This is Julia. 

JESSICA: Thank you.