Engineered stone is bad for the lungs

 Photo collage of a stonemason cutting stone without a respirator. Behind him, a vintage diagram of the lung shows multiple pins indicating damaged areas.
Cutting engineered stone exposes those handling it to silica dust. | Credit: Illustration by Julia Wytrazek / Getty Images

Quartz countertops have become a staple of many a high-end kitchen, but the path to getting them there is paved with risk. Quartz is also called engineered stone because it is made by binding crushed natural quartz with adhesive resin to create a flat surface. But the material contains high amounts of silica, an oxide which, when inhaled, can cause a lung condition known as silicosis. The disease can be deadly and has been particularly affecting construction workers who regularly cut and saw the material.

The qualms with quartz

Engineered stone is a popular choice for kitchen and bathroom countertops all over the world. But a 2023 study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that workers exposed to dust from the stone, like those who install it, are in danger of developing silicosis. Engineered stone is "everywhere and people have no idea," Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary specialist at UCLA and an author of the study, said to the Los Angeles Times. "[Consumers] have a right to know that the countertop that might be the cheapest one may really be costing folks' lives."

Engineered stone exposes those handling it to the mineral silica, found in several types of rock and soil. Silica particles can end up in the air and be inhaled, which is what may cause silicosis, a type of pulmonary fibrosis. "When silica dust enters the lungs, it causes inflammation which over time leads to the development of scar tissue that makes breathing difficult," said the American Lung Association. "Complications from silicosis can include tuberculosis, lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, autoimmune disorders and kidney disease." The condition has no cure but can be prevented by reducing exposure to silica dust. Approximately 2.3 million U.S. workers are exposed to silica in the workplace with the large majority being construction workers. While silica is present in several types of natural stone, engineered stone has a higher and more dangerous concentration.

A ban on the horizon?

Australia recently became the first country to fully ban engineered stone on account of its health implications. "Engineered stone is the asbestos of the 2020s," said the national secretary of the country's Construction, Forestry and Maritime Employees Union, Zach Smith, to 9 News. "Governments must act to stop its importation and use." Now, California is considering taking similar action. In December 2023, the state issued a series of regulations in order to "protect workers engaged in high-exposure tasks such as cutting, grinding, polishing and cleanup of artificial stone," said the California Department of Industrial Relations in a press release. However, these regulations are not always followed. To address this problem, the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health said that inspections should be done regularly, and if widespread non-compliance is found, an advisory committee will be "immediately convened to develop plans for prohibiting the use of engineered stone products in California."

There are steps that can be taken to minimize the risk for construction workers. One beneficial technique is wet cutting, which "involves a water delivery system that continuously wets the blade a worker is cutting the stone with, which can prevent silica dust from floating up to their face," said The Independent. Workers can also wear protective respirators to prevent breathing in silica particles. "It's an old disease, but what we're seeing is the silicosis from engineered stone is happening much faster and affecting people quicker and more severely than other products," Dr. Sheiphali Gandhi, a pulmonologist at UC San Francisco School of Medicine, said to the Los Angeles Times.