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Stone countertop workers are getting sick and dying due to exposure to silica dust

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Dozens of young Latino men in California have developed severe lung disease, and at least 10 have died after working in shops that make kitchen and bathroom countertops. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, public health experts believe there's a lot more sick workers in the countertop industry.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: For countertops, there's a popular material called quartz. Quartz is a kind of engineered stone. Folks like Martha Stewart have extolled its virtues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTHA STEWART: Quartz needs no sealing or polishing like granite or marble, and because of its durability, it will always remain glossy and smooth.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But compared to granite or marble, quartz contains a lot more of the mineral silica. Silica dust can fly into the air when a slab of raw countertop material gets cut to order, and this dust can damage the lungs. So in recent years, when cases of lung disease started appearing in the countertop industry, public health experts became worried.

SHEPHALI GANDHI: Things are heading in the direction that we feared. You know, we've had more and more people presenting very severely.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Shephali Gandhi is a pulmonologist at the University of California San Francisco. She and some colleagues have just published a report describing over 50 sick countertop workers in California. Some died or needed lung transplants. Almost all were Spanish-speaking Latino men.

GANDHI: And they're all very young.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, work sites can control silica dust with ventilation, sprays of water and proper masks. But California's workplace safety agency says it looks like most countertop fabrication shops in its state are not complying with federal silica rules. That's why the agency has fast-tracked the development of new protections for these workers. David Goldsmith is an epidemiologist at George Washington University. He says the newly reported cases in California are concerning.

DAVID GOLDSMITH: I am certain that this is an underestimate of the severity of the problem in California, and by inference, it's an underestimate of the severity of the problem in the whole United States.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says it seems that other states aren't paying as much attention to this, despite an urgent need to figure out how widespread this kind of lung disease in the countertop industry really is. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.

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