The Hidden Cost of Quartz Countertops: Silicosis

Granite, marble, porcelain, quartz—all materials leveraged in the development of beautiful, durable countertops. When people are choosing what countertop material to use in their homes, they often consider factors like durability over time, maintenance, cost, color, and feel. Quartz is often beautiful, colorful, durable, and cost-effective, making it an easy choice. But what if these countertops are causing more harm than good? 

Nicole Pollack tackles this question in her article in Hospitality Design, which explores a relatively hidden and unknown issue in the design realm: silicosis. Silicosis is an interstitial lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica particles. When these particles are inhaled, they cause the lungs to become scarred and inflamed. Over time, this makes it more difficult to breathe.

“But what do quartz countertops have to do with silica exposure?” you might ask. Well, silica is naturally occurring in some clay, sand, and rocks. When workers grind quartz to create countertops, the process causes crystalline silica exposure. In fact, unlike other rocks or materials, quartz countertops are made entirely of silica. These silica countertops aren’t a risk to those who have them in their kitchens. However, they pose a significant risk to the people who manufacture, cut, and install them.

How Workers Are Affected

In an investigative study published by Dr. Jane Fazio, MD et. al in JAMA Internal Medicine, the research team investigated the impact of silica dust exposure in Californian engineered stone countertop fabrication workers. 

52 patients were included in the study. Their median age at diagnosis was 45 and they had a median work experience of 10-20 years. 51 of the 52 patients were male Latino immigrants. 10 patients had died from silicosis and 20 others were in late-stage silicosis. 11 patients had been referred for lung transplants. While silicosis typically takes decades to develop, some of the workers in this study were as young as their 20s. 

This poses a significant concern. Not only are silicosis cases rising globally but, in the case of countertop workers, these cases are beginning to develop more quickly and in younger individuals. 

In this field, at least, the study authors suggest that interventions are done to minimize the risk in workers. These include:

  • Using wet cutting, ventilation, and high-quality respirators in the workplace
  • Developing more stringent policies to ensure that the silica exposure limit is abided by for employers 
  • Encouraging companies to use and sell countertop materials that have lower silica content, such as porcelain
  • Educating consumers about the dangers of quartz for factory workers and encourages other choices

About Silicosis

As I shared before, silicosis is a lung disease that occurs following silica inhalation. It is considered acute if symptoms appear within a few weeks to years following exposure to large amounts of silica, chronic if symptoms do not appear until decades later, or accelerated if symptoms appear within 5-10 years of silica exposure and intensify rapidly. People in the mining, steel, construction, sandblasting, road repair, masonry, and farming industries are more likely to develop silicosis due to their exposure to silica.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for silicosis and treatment cannot reverse the damage. Treatment is largely supportive, including bronchodilation and pulmonary rehabilitation, supplemental oxygen, and lung transplants. 

Symptoms of this disease can include:

  • A persistent cough
  • Excess mucus or phlegm 
  • Sudden-onset fever
  • Shortness of breath and/or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue and general malaise 
  • Chest pain
  • Swollen legs
  • Bluish discoloration of the lips 
  • Fever 
  • Drenching night sweats
Jessica Lynn

Jessica Lynn

Jessica Lynn has an educational background in writing and marketing. She firmly believes in the power of writing in amplifying voices, and looks forward to doing so for the rare disease community.

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