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Health

“Deadly Disease Strikes California Countertop Workers”

Disease Strikes California Amidst a row of workshops in an industrial area of Pacoima, laborers toiled over substantial speckled stone slabs, their saws drowning out the background sounds of Spanish-language rock music. As they worked, pale dust swirled around them, and many of them did so without protective masks. Some had water systems attached to their machines, but others lacked any means to suppress the rising dust.

Maria Cabrera, a community outreach worker with the nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful, approached the workers at the Branford Street site, armed with flyers about silicosis, an incurable and debilitating disease caused by inhaling crystalline silica particles when cutting and grinding stone.

Read: Dengue Health Experts Advise Vigilance as Dengue Cases Rise in Ernakulam

Disease Strikes California

Cabrera urged them and others to protect themselves, but the lack of awareness and protective measures was evident. The disease, once seen mainly in older individuals with decades of exposure, is now affecting young workers, primarily Latino immigrants in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary critical care physician, noted cases of the disease at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, where some California patients have died in their 30s. Many workers in the stone fabrication industry, particularly those handling engineered stone, are at risk.

Disease Strikes California Engineered stone, used in countertops and made of crushed quartz and resin, has much higher concentrations of silica compared to natural stone, leading to an epidemic of the disease among workers. Silicosis, which scars the lungs and can lead to lung failure, has no cure.

Leobardo Segura Meza, a 27-year-old father, could no longer run around with his children, let alone work, after being diagnosed with silicosis. He had spent a decade cutting, polishing, and installing countertops in Los Angeles County without adequate protective measures.

Workplace safety regulators have recommended measures such as water spraying systems, ventilation, vacuum systems, and protective respirators for workers. The risk is serious, with estimates suggesting that out of roughly 4,000 workers in the industry in California, silicosis could afflict between 485 and 848, with as many as 161 potentially dying from it.

Silicosis cases have been particularly prevalent in Los Angeles County, with 60 out of the 83 cases among countertop workers identified across the state since 2019.

California regulators are now drafting emergency rules to protect workers in the engineered stone industry, which is dominant in the countertop market. L.A. County is even considering banning the sale and installation of “silica engineered stone.”

The industry argues that adherence to existing safety measures is the solution, while others contend that more comprehensive and costly protections are needed. Silicosis cases have been misdiagnosed as pneumonia or tuberculosis, leading to delays in treatment.

Disease Strikes California Raphael Metzger, an attorney representing workers suing manufacturers of engineered stone for damages, argues that typical safety measures aren’t sufficient. Even with “wet methods,” workers can still be exposed to dangerous levels of silica.

Australia is also considering banning engineered stone, as high silica concentrations make it difficult for standard protective measures to suffice. The Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists recommended prohibiting engineered stone containing more than 10% crystalline silica and supports banning all engineered stone due to the stringent compliance required.

Consumer awareness of the issue is low, and engineered stone represents over 60% of countertop materials. Market researchers expect its popularity to continue to rise, but consumers often remain unaware of the potential health risks to workers.

Efforts are underway in California to protect workers in the stone cutting and polishing industry, but regulatory challenges and a lack of awareness pose ongoing concerns.

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