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A Guide to Silica In Surfacing Materials – What is Dangerous and Why?

Crystalline silica is taking center stage in discussions about what is in your kitchen. Are you eating off crystalline silica? Is it dangerous to you and your family? Is this the new granite-radon scare? Why are countries like Australia, and counties like Los Angeles looking to ban quartz countertops? Why are quartzites and natural stones not part of the crystalline silica conversation? Why did nobody want to talk about this four years ago but now nobody wants to stop waving the silica free flag?

Let’s cover the basics before we get real.

  • What is silica? Silica, or Silicon Dioxide, or SiO2, is a compound of silicon and oxygen commonly found in nature, and comprises roughly 12% of the earth’s crust. It is abundant in its crystalline forms, most commonly quartz. Quartz is used in many building materials, which makes silica incredibly relevant to our industry, as it is found in buildings from foundations (concrete) to finishes (countertops).


  • Source: https://physicsopenlab.org/2018/02/13/crystalline-and-amorphous-solids/

    What types of silica are there? There are two main types of silica: crystalline and amorphous. Crystalline silica can be seen in the image on the left, and is found in materials like concrete, quartz, and stone. Its rigid structure renders it a jagged juggernaut when it becomes airborne. Amorphous silica, diagrammed on the right, is found in materials like glass, also commonly used in building construction but, fortunately, its structure makes it far less dangerous when inhaled than silica in its crystalline form.


  • Where is Crystalline Silica in Building Materials? Granite countertops, quartz countertops and quartzite countertops all contain crystalline silica. Porcelain, brick, ceramics, stone, mortars and concrete also contain crystalline silica, and have for years.

It is so ubiquitous in building materials that the industry thought that they would not have to confront the issue, but that was not the case. Crystalline Silica is now often referred to as the ‘next asbestos.’


  • What are the Dangers of Crystalline Silica? Crystalline silica becomes airborne when these building materials are being mined, processed, or cut. When inhaled, crystalline particles are akin to razor blades or throwing stars, slicing lung tissue with their jagged edges and scarring the lung tissue. When workers inhale crystalline silica, the lung tissue develops nodules and scarring around trapped silica particles, which over time, can cause silicosis, an often fatal lung condition. Other conditions caused or induced by crystalline silica inhalation include lung cancer, COPD, and Tuberculosis.


  • Are my countertops going to give me silicosis? No. In its finished form, crystalline silica is bound into a material that is not harmful to you, as the particles are not airborne and can not be respirated.


  • Oh good, I can go about my business? Not really. There is a major push in Australia, initiatives in India and the UK, and recently in LA County in the US as well, to ban engineered stone. Engineered stone, also called quartz surfacing, is the most widely used material for kitchen countertops today. There are quartz brands in the US, Italy, Canada and Israel that dominate the market. It is also imported from countries like China, Turkey, Vietnam and India, where regulations may differ.

The future of quartz surfacing is unsure, though many are (perhaps falsely) confident that there will not be a ban on the materials. It is also important to note that granite, marble, and quartzites also contain silica, so any ban may rope them in whether they are aware of it or not. Especially at risk are quartzites, which can be upward of 95% silica. 


  • Why is Crystalline Silica in the news now? What happened? Companies have known for years that there was a risk. In fact, one company was charged with negligence for knowingly exposing 1,900 workers to the risk of crystalline silica, some of whom died. There are more lawsuits pending and very likely even more to come.

America loves a good lawsuit. This issue has just arrived at our doorstep (not really, we have been covering this for 5 years, but building materials are notoriously slow to adopt anything) and there is inevitably more to come in terms of awareness, organization and class action.


  • Is anyone doing anything about crystalline silica? Yes, companies are stepping up and acknowledging the issue. Of note are Breton, Lapitec and Cosentino, all of whom have owned any role they have in the issue and are addressing the challenges at the product level. Cosentino is engineering crystalline silica out of their quartz formulation with their HybriQ technology. Breton has created BioQuartz, a silica free quartz production line that can be invested in, and adopted by, leading quartz companies if they choose to go the route that completely eliminates silica from their manufacturing. Lapitec sintered stone is silica free. Initially launched as a low silica material, the company, in partnership with Breton, has gone completely silica free. It created a new proprietary mineral mix, named Biorite, which is 100% silica free.

Finally, innovation in our industry. It is sad that it takes the fear of litigation and death to get the industry to look at the process from start to finish when it comes to building materials. The ‘Anything to make a buck’ mentality is dated and dangerous. We are learning that now in technicolor detail. Hopefully silicosis does not become a cash cow for the notoriously greedy US legal system, but rather a bellwether for how we look at building materials from start to finish. (And as opposed to a glossy magazine photo with Silicone Cindy on the cover.)

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