Study Links Working With Engineered Stone to Permanent Lung Damage

Workers who fabricate countertops from engineered stone are more likely to be exposed to dangerous levels of silica. Learn more here.

white countertops made from engineered stoneShutterstock/ Jo Ann Snover

What is Engineered Stone?

Engineered stone, also known as artificial stone, is a building material that continues to rise in popularity year over year. It’s almost indistinguishable from solid stone but has more consistent coloring, can be tinted, is non-porous, and is resistant to scratches and stains. And yet while those benefits make engineered stone an easy choice for homebuilders looking to give their clients high-quality countertops, the material is not without its negative aspects, particularly for the people who manufacture it.

Why is Engineered Stone Unsafe?

NPR recently published a story highlighting just how dangerous working with engineered stone can be. The story connects the production of artificial stone kitchen and bathroom countertops to cases of death and permanent lung damage caused by prolonged exposure to the mineral the stone is mainly comprised from- silica.

Silica is a mineral that naturally occurs in a wide variety of stone types, ranging from sandstone to granite. When stones containing silica are broken, cut, drilled or crushed, some of that silica is released in the form of breathable dust. That means that for workers who manufacture countertops, exposing their lungs to at least some level of silica is not just a risk- in some cases, it’s inevitable.

When it comes to engineered stone, the amount of silica dust produced can be much higher because a much higher percentage of engineered stone is silica.

“Engineered stone typically contains over 90 percent silica,” Dr. Amy Heinzerling, an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NPR. “Granite, for instance, usually contains less than 45 percent silica. Marble usually contains less than 10 percent.”

Dr. Heinzerling was part of a team of researchers who recently published a study connecting people working with engineered stone to cases of silicosis. Silicosis is an incurable lung disease directly caused by inhalation of crystalline silica particles. The study reported 18 confirmed cases of silicosis in stone fabrication workers, two of which were ultimately fatal.

Shutterstock/ Gansstock

What Can Be Done About Silica Exposure?

While 18 confirmed cases may not seem like a particularly high number, the study argues that this is caused by two main factors. Requiring screening for silicosis only became an established requirement in most jurisdictions very recently, so there may still be a large number of undetected cases. Additionally, public health surveillance for silicosis is not standardized across the U.S., meaning that there is no systematic process for screening all at-risk workers.

When the government in Queensland, Australia, made silicosis screenings more systematic, ninety-eight cases of silicosis were found in 799 at-risk workers. That’s 12 percent.

Ultimately, the study does not advocate for a ban on working with engineered stone. Instead, it recommends more preemptive action to reduce silica exposure and a more consistent and effective screening process for workers at risk to silicosis.

“State health departments and CDC can work together to standardize and improve public health surveillance for silicosis across jurisdictions,” reads the study. “Effective disease surveillance and regulatory enforcement are crucial to address the emerging silicosis threat in the stone fabrication industry.”

Next, learn how toxic floor joists drove a family from their new home.