Silicosis: a Primer for the Quartz & Stone Industry
Silicosis has become a hot topic in the stone world of late, and there is a lot of fear and confusion around the issue. It is important that this issue be taken seriously, but also that it be properly understood so as not to end up in another “radon in granite” conundrum. (For those who are not familiar, a study was done finding minor levels of radon in granite and non-granite companies exploited the topics, creating a lot of fear for homeowners, largely unfounded).
There is a good article on granite and radon (with facts) from the EPA here: https://www.epa.gov/radiation/granite-countertops-and-radiation
Silicosis is different. It is an incurable lung disease DIRECTLY caused by fabricating or working with stone or quartz materials without employing proper protective techniques. Silicosis is caused by small particles of respirable crystalline silica embedding themselves in lung tissue, causing the tissue to stiffen and scar, making it hard to breathe. It can not be cured. It can be contracted acutely, which is rapid onset after exposure to large amounts of silica dust, chronic, caused by potentially decades of low-level exposure, and accelerated, which occurs years after exposure to a large amount. However, once symptoms present, it can escalate quickly. Symptoms include coughing, and trouble breathing, and as it progresses, fatigue, chest pain, weight loss, fever and swelling can occur. Silicosis is often fatal.
What is silica?
Silica is in the earth’s crust. When we disturb the crust, we are creating silica dust. Silica is an abundant mineral found in sand, rock, and quartz. Many occupations risk exposure to silica dust, including mining, sandblasting, construction and for the purposes of this article, stone fabrication. Granite is around 40-50% silica, Quartz is around 90% silica, Porcelain is around 15-18%, and the new products, Sintered Stones, are around 0-11% silica content.
Stone and quartz fabrication are very risky professions for exposure to this dust, as people are sanding, polishing and cutting into these silica-laden materials. The onus is on the companies to put the right protective measures in place to protect their employees. Wearing masks and protective equipment, including respirators, and using wet cutting can eliminate the risks to workers.
Silicosis: a growing pandemic
Image credit: CDC
Why has this come to the forefront? In Australia, 799 workers were assessed and 98 of them (12%) were found to have silicosis. They are considering legislation to BAN quartz surfaces in the territory.
Here in the US, there had only been one reported case as of this year. In September, 18 new cases were identified in four states (CA, TX, WA, CO). Here is that report: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/68/wr/mm6838a1.htm
There are approximately 8,694 stone fabrication shops in the US with 96,366 employees. Given the results in Australia, it is daunting to think what the true impact could be in the US.
Putting worker safety first
Now the good news. Stone fabricators are often family-owned businesses, and many of them are very employee-centric and have put substantial measures in place to protect their workers.
They have been wet cutting and requiring equipment for years and in some cases decades. They are OSHA compliant and they are acutely aware of silicosis risk and ensure that they keep their employees safe.
But sometimes they are not. As a stone fabricator, it is important to enforce policies at your own company. When you see someone not wearing a mask, make them put it on. Make sure they have the right equipment, to begin with. If you need to spend money to be compliant, it is worth it.
As a consumer or architect or contractor, it is important to know who you are working with and what practices they employ to keep their workers safe. Make sure you choose partners for your countertops, tile or stone cutting needs that are aware of best practices and/or offer alternatives to materials that could be potentially dangerous if they do not have best practices in place. Here is what can happen when you don’t. https://patch.com/georgia/decatur/decatur-company-fined-132k-osha-health-hazards
CaraGreen partners with stone fabrication facilities and manufacturers across the US with its products. We work with architects and designers to ensure that they are given the most topical information on surfacing and healthy building materials.
For more information on quartz and silicosis, check out our blog post on the subject: https://www.caragreen.com/blog/entry/the-dark-crystal-silicosis-quartz-countertops