With Quartz Linked to Silicosis, Surfacing Manufacturers Seek Alternatives

Published: October 4, 2023

This article originally appeared on September 14, 2023 on the Hospitality Design website. Hospitality Design is a sister publication of KBB. It has been slightly edited. This article was updated on October 30, 2023.

Quartz countertops are a design staple. They offer a high-end look at a relatively low price point, come in a wide range of colors, and boast impressive durability with fewer maintenance needs than the slabs of granite and marble they often compete against. Also known as engineered stone, the man-made composite material has taken new and remodeled properties by storm over the last few decades. A growing body of evidence, however, is signaling that the affordability of quartz countertops comes at a hidden cost.

The inhalation of tiny particles of crystalline silica – the dust that comes from grinding up quartz – has been linked to silicosis, a deadly lung disease, in workers who manufacture, cut and install the countertops. Many natural stones contain some amount of silica, but typical quartz countertops are entirely silica aside from the resin that holds them together, resulting in higher levels of silica exposure over time.

Diagnosed silicosis cases are on the rise in the U.S. and around the world, says Jane Fazio, a pulmonologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s something that results from chronic exposure to inhaled silica particles,” she says. “Usually, in other industries, it occurs over decades, so 30 or 40 years.”

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Fazio is the lead author of a study on silicosis among countertop workers that was recently published in the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The study found that countertop fabricators were contracting severe forms of the disease much more rapidly than expected. The 52 patients included in the study – all but one of whom were Latino immigrants – were diagnosed at a median age of 45, after a median work tenure of 10 to 20 years. Some were as young as in their 20s. At the time of the study, 10 patients had already died, at a median age of 46. Twenty more were in late stages of the disease.

“Silicosis is not a treatable disease,” Fazio says. “This is a chronic, progressive, fatal disease, and so the only real tool we have as a society is prevention.”

What Happens Next?

There are ways to reduce silica exposure in the workplace, including the use of wet cutting, ventilation and high-quality respirators. None of those methods are completely effective, however. The comprehensiveness of silicosis screenings also varies by state – not to mention by country – and new cases are not always reported. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a silica exposure limit in place for U.S. employers, it is unclear how often that standard is followed.

California’s Los Angeles County is now mulling a ban on the manufacture, sale and installation of quartz countertops. County officials are due to report back soon on possible options for banning or restricting the material. Their recommendations “will at a minimum include expanding education and workplace safety protections,” according to a spokesperson. Meanwhile, OSHA’s counterpart in Australia could impose a total ban on engineered stone products, also due to concerns about silicosis, as soon as next year.

Fazio sees moving away from quartz surfaces as the safest approach.

“Things can be done to certainly minimize disease risks, short of banning the products, but the products are much more dangerous than people initially realized,” Fazio says. She encourages countertop buyers to “think twice about what materials they’re purchasing and who’s doing the work behind the scenes,” and make sure that companies supplying quartz countertops are “truly providing protections for their workers.”

Finding an Alternative to Quartz

There are plenty of lower-silica alternatives available, including granite and marble. Porcelain is another option that shares many of the same strengths, including aesthetic appeal and durability, at a similar price to natural stone, and has found a foothold in the hospitality industry, as well as the residential sector.

“When you go to hotels, no matter what the brand, you’re selling a product there,” says Marcy Trimble, director of key accounts for Stonepeak Ceramics, a Chicago-based porcelain manufacturer. “The room is a product that you’re selling to your customers, and you want to make it look as nice as possible.”

Quartz has long been an inexpensive choice that meets those standards while holding up to the daily wear and tear. But, Trimble says, “there will come a time where the hospitality industry will step up to the plate by sourcing these sorts of things more ethically.”

More and more companies are also developing new countertops that mimic the look and feel of engineered stone while lowering exposure risk for workers. Georgia-based interior finish supplier MGroup stopped selling quartz countertops shortly after introducing a porcelain-based version, Ultracera, a few years ago. “We had something that was as good or better in performance and look and aesthetics as a typical quartz countertop, that was much more environmentally friendly,” says Scott Murray, MGroup’s vice president of manufacturing and product development.

Minimizing silica exposure was always part of the mission, Murray says. “It didn’t really resonate much early on. People wanted something that looked the same and performed the same. And now it’s become a much more important issue, or on the forefront of people’s minds.”

—By Nicole Pollack

Photo credit: Stonepeak Ceramics

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