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Study of stone countertop workers ‘raises the alarm’ on silicosis risk

Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

San Francisco — A recent study of stone fabricators in California who have been diagnosed with silicosis shows that virtually all of them were immigrant, Latino men.

Cutting, sawing, sanding, drilling or crushing artificial stone used to make countertops can release respirable crystalline silica into the air. When breathed in, the tiny particles can get trapped in the lungs, cause inflammation and scarring, and inhibit the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen. Exposure can lead to black lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or incurable silicosis.

A team of researchers from two California universities, in collaboration with the California Labor Laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco and the state’s Department of Public Health, identified 52 engineered-stone workers with silicosis. Most of the workers were diagnosed between 2019 and 2022.

All but one of the 52 workers were immigrant, Latino men. The group’s median age at the time of diagnosis was 45 and average time spent on the job was 15 years. Nearly half of them continued working after their diagnosis, and 10 died at a median age of 46.

“Our study demonstrates severe morbidity and mortality among a particularly vulnerable group of young, underinsured and likely undocumented Latino immigrant workers,” study co-author Jane Fazio, a pulmonary specialist at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, said in a press release.

The release notes that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is considering a ban on artificial stone. California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health has started drafting emergency rules.

“Our paper raises the alarm,” study co-author Sheiphali Gandhi, a pulmonologist at UCSF, said in the release. “If we don’t stop it now, we’re going to have hundreds, if not thousands, of more cases. Even if we stopped it now, we’re going to be seeing these cases for the next decade because it takes years to develop.”

The study was published online in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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