You might think the title of this blog is sensational and provocative, but what if I told you that your quartz slabs, one of many decorative finishes in your project, have actually contributed to tens of thousands of deaths and illnesses each year due to it's extremely high content of crystallized silica, compared to any other countertop material?
Unless you change your VPN to Australia or New Zealand, or perhaps California, your searches won't lead you to much in-depth information on the latest news on quartz or how an entire country is getting ready to ban the material completely. There has been little news on this topic in the U.S., but hopefully that will change, as the other side of the world has already begun to face the bull head-on. The bull is a high silica-engineered stone, commonly known as quartz.
The material that quartz is made of, silica dust, is now commonly referred to as the "next asbestos," thanks to the nearly identical hazard it poses to lung health when airborne. This should come as no surprise -- after all, asbestos is made of fibrous silicate and used heavily in construction, much like silica dust. Its effect on the lungs has been well-documented for many years, but the rise in popularity of quartz countertops in recent years has brought more attention to this harmful material. This CDC article states "In recent years, engineered stone countertops have become increasingly popular; quartz surface imports to the United States increased approximately 800% during 2010–2018." We found a graph, pictured below, from a second source to show the increase visually.
Engineered Stone Countertop Demend, 2007-2021 (million square feet)
Countries all around the world have already taking action specifically to address the rise in silicosis related to the fabrication of engineered stone. In July of 2023, the first study in the US was conducted, "Silicosis Among Immigrant Engineered Stone (Quartz) Countertop Fabrication Workers in California." The study has been picked up by nearly every major media house. Of many important topics, the study brings to light the equity problem, which has not previously been on focus in other countries. All fabricators of quartz are at risk, but their study highlights specifically how it has affected immigrants. Take a look below at one chart from their study.
From: Silicosis Among Immigrant Engineered Stone (Quartz) Countertop Fabrication Workers in California
Figure Legend: Yearly Case Counts for 52 Patients With Engineered Stone–Associated Silicosis in California, 2010-2022There were no reported cases of silicosis associated with engineered stone in California prior to 2010. Image & Article Source
Citation: Fazio JC Gandhi SA Flattery J, et al. Silicosis Among Immigrant Engineered Stone (Quartz) Countertop Fabrication Workers in California. JAMA Intern Med. Published online July 24, 2023. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2023.3295.
The term "engineered stone" is a blanket term that mainly refers to a man-made slab of mostly crushed quartz. The amount of crushed quartz is mostly between 90-97%, bound together using a polymer resin. Its common name is "quartz," not to be confused with Quartzite, a natural stone. The remaining ingredients may be composed of materials like metals, mirrors, shells, or colored glass which are added in for design aesthetics.
This material can be used anywhere that other slab stones like marble or granite are used, but for the most part, people choose quartz for their bathroom and kitchen countertops and, of course, on many commercial jobs, partially due to its widespread availability.
Image source Engineered Stones / Quartz Samples
A quick trip around the internet will give you these Pros/Cons:
The popularity of quartz will lead you to believe it's a superior material, but it has a robust mix of good and bad characteristics. Here is a comparison of quartz versus a porcelain slab graphic.
Silestone Eternal Calacatta Gold Architessa Elevated Statuario Extra Lappato
(Ironically, one of the most popular colors of 2023)
The generic description of quartz is that it's a man-made material made up of mostly crushed stone, bound together by an adhesive to form a solid surface. Most quartz today is manufactured with a ratio of approximately 93% crushed stone and 7% resin and pigmentation. The non-generic description will include one major detail: the 93% is actually crystalline silica. Here is what OSHA says about crystalline silica:
Crystalline silica is a common mineral found in the earth's crust. Materials like sand, stone, concrete, and mortar contain crystalline silica. It is also used to make products such as glass, pottery, ceramics, bricks, and artificial stone.
Respirable crystalline silica – very small particles at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand you might find on beaches and playgrounds – is created when cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, and crushing stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar. Activities such as abrasive blasting with sand; sawing brick or concrete; sanding or drilling into concrete walls; grinding mortar; manufacturing brick, concrete blocks, stone countertops, or ceramic products; and cutting or crushing stone result in worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica dust. Industrial sand used in certain operations, such as foundry work and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), is also a source of respirable crystalline silica exposure. About 2.3 million people in the U.S. are exposed to crystalline silica at work.
Workers who inhale these very small crystalline silica particles are at increased risk of developing serious silica-related diseases, including:
What is silicosis? Silicosis is a preventable but incurable lung disease that can lead to disability and death, caused by prolonged exposure to respirable crystalline silica. These abrasive particles cause irreversible damage to the lungs. All of these potential diseases from exposure can put you at an increased risk when contracting other respiratory illnesses and diseases, such as COVID-19 or pneumonia.
Mont Blanc quartzite (right) a natural stone, is often imitated by manufactured quartz producers. Notice the inherent difference of one manufacturer’s Mont Blanc (left) and a second company’s Montblanc (center) as manufactured quartz product offerings compared to its natural counterpart. Image Source
How are people getting sick from Quartz?
Information and data on this topic are plentiful. The newest and most relevant information to the U.S. was published recently. "Deadly Dust: Engineered Stone Is Making California Workers Sick" is the largest U.S. study on artificial stone slabs making people sick, and you can read a brief synopsis here. The article states:
When the synthetic quartz is cut, ground, and polished, lung-damaging dust is released into the air, leading to a disease called silicosis. The disease has plagued miners and cutters of natural stone for centuries, but the engineered stone is far more dangerous due to its high concentration of silica, a natural product in sandstone, and the harmful polymer resins and dyes that are added to the engineered product.
Quartzes' primary ingredient is crystalline silica. When quartz is fabricated (cut, ground, or polished), it disperses tiny dust particles, which can be so small they are not visible, commonly referred to as respirable crystalline silica (RCS). The high crystalline silica content makes quartz particularly dangerous, as opposed to non-crystalline or amorphous forms of silica, which do not pose health risks.
Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) refers to particles of crystalline silica less than four microns in size or particulate matter 4 (PM4). Respirable silica dust particles are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and can cause irreversible lung damage.
When workers cut, crush, drill, polish, saw, or grind quartz, RCS particles are generated that are small enough to lodge deep in the lungs and cause illness or disease, including silicosis. Commissioned Reports from the Australian government have reported that in some cases, less than one year of exposure can lead to the beginning stages of silicosis.
The construction industry and countertop fabricators already know about silica dust and protecting against it. In some conversations, the topic is even brushed off because safety standards are supposed to be followed to avoid consequences, even of the extreme.
On a large scale, what has happened has some parallels to speeding. People know the speed limit, but they still choose to break it at a known risk: injury or death. In my community, lowering the speed limit was the first "solution." This didn't work, and people still exceeded the speed limit, so now dozens of community improvements are taking place. Additional crosswalks with zebra stripes, raised pedestrian crossings, widened curbs, removed parking spots, etc. It's a full-circle approach to solving the problem. A speed limit is a "required" protective measure, just as a respirator or PPE is in this instance. Just like a speed limit, not everyone is going to follow safety guidelines, even if it's at the risk of their own health and safety.
To put it short, it's very bad, and has been commonly referred to as the ‘next asbestos.” It's actually not a new topic, as the first U.S. silicosis case specifically linked to quartz was reported in 2015, according to the study published in the July 24, 2023, edition of JAMA Internal Medicine. The study mentions that underreporting and symptoms without diagnoses are extremely prevalent with silicosis.
Many building products produce silica dust, but quartz is the most potent source. Controlling dust, in general, is obviously not new to the industry. Still, the high % of dangerous material dispersed to fabricate every installation is a big problem, as evidenced by all the stats and data. The Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists president, Kate Cole, likened the risk of exposure to silica to that of asbestos and said high-silica stone products should be banned as soon as possible.
The extent of how serious has recently been highlighted by this study.
How bad is silicosis according to the National Institute of Health?
"Over 20,000 incident cases of silicosis were identified in 2017 and millions of workers continue to be exposed to RCS (respirable crystalline silica). Identified case numbers are however a substantial underestimation due to deficiencies in reporting systems and occupational respiratory health surveillance programs in many countries." (NIH, 2022)
How many people die each year from silicosis (of any origin)?
"More than 12.9 thousand death cases occurred due to silicosis worldwide in 2019." (NIH, 2022)
Who is most at risk:
It's worth noting that the disease disproportionately affects minorities. In the United States, the CDC says “During 2001–2010, 1,437 decedents had silicosis coded as the underlying or contributing cause of death. Of these, 28 (1.9%) were aged 15–44 years, 1,370 (95.3%) were males, and 1,236 (86.0%) were whites (Table). The overall age-adjusted silicosis death rate for blacks (0.87 per 1 million) was significantly higher than the rate for whites (0.59) and other races (0.16). The age-adjusted silicosis death rate for males (1.39 per 1 million) was significantly higher than the rate for females.”
Grains of glass & metallic flakes help make quartz look more like marble. Image Source
Many countries have already implemented campaigns and tightened worker safety standards. There are various initiatives in the UK, India, Australia, New Zealand, and California, with some really big moves.
Australia is the first in the world to attempt to solve the quartz crisis. According to a 2021 report by the Australian government's national dust disease taskforce, nearly one in four workers exposed to silica dust from quartz before 2018 have been diagnosed with silicosis.
Australia is currently in the process of banning quartz by 2024. You can find lots of information on what they have done to lead up to this pending ban. There is an important study done by Curtin University on the Future burden from occupational silica exposure in Australia that shows the potential wide-scale impact of disease and deaths that will occur in Australia if no changes happen. The numbers are astonishing. You can actually read all the public submissions for and against the ban. Many submissions are from lawyers and doctors in full support of eliminating quartz from their country altogether.
Announced in late July of 2023, New Zealand's only fabricator, AGB Stone, is the first in the world to ban quartz in order to protect against silicosis. Yes - they control the market in N.Z., but this is still a big move, with lots of work to be done on their side and a cost. AGB Stone has stated it will only provide quartz with a maximum of 40% silica, which is less than half of the current levels.
In California, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is weighing a potential ban, and the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, has begun drafting emergency rules. The first study in the U.S., done by UCSF-UCLA, to measure the toll of silicosis in stone fabricators was just released in July of 2023. Not only does it highlight the dangers of quartz, which their title refers to as "artificial stone," but it also focuses on an important aspect of equity, which has not been a focus in Australia or N.Z. Read a synopsis here.
The engineered stone such as quartz that is almost entirely composed of crystalline silica requires much more safety oversight, which is not just costly. It brings a shared responsibility from manufacturers, distributors, and boots on the ground. When large-scale campaigns across the construction supply chain are needed, there are many moving parts and lots of heavy lifting and coordinating to be done. It's no small feat. By now, all manufacturers are highly aware of the dangers, and some have known for quite some time.
There are detailed requirements and instructions to help protect workers. You can read up on OSHA's standard, which requires employers to take steps to protect workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica.
I previously mentioned Australia & their request for public comment on the pending quartz ban, and of course, I had to read a selection of them. Besides learning a lot about the subject at hand, I learned a little about milk & wanted to share a snippet of one submission that was particularly interesting:
Within stonemasonry and the greater construction industry, the risks associated with inhaling dust have been known for many years. Silicosis and the danger posed are not new, and even in decades past, workers took steps to protect themselves from this. An example was the doctrine of drinking at least one pint of milk per day; many tradespeople still drink flavored milk despite not knowing why this was done. You might think this an old wives' tale. However, it turns out milk stimulates the production of mucus in the lungs, which helps collect inhaled particles and prevent them from becoming lodged within the lung tissue. Far from a perfect solution, but it highlights how old this problem is.
You can view the full submission and commenter's recommendations here.
Now that you know more about quartz than you bargained for, you probably want to know about other materials and what their silica content is. The crystalline silica content of common materials used across industries can vary significantly, up to 97 percent. Here is a breakdown taken from Safe Work Australia and other sources.
Silica Content of Quartz & Other Materials
|Type of Material||Silica Content %|
|Quartz||Up to 97%|
|Clay||Up to 40%|
|Brick||Up to 30%|
|Basalt/Dolerite||Up to 15%|
|Limestone||Up to 2%|
|Marble||Up to 2%|
*Architessa is currently in the process of researching the % of crystalline silica in ceramic tile, and have at least one USA factory with an average content of 15-25%
Currently, quartz countertops are still increasing in popularity, and may continue to do so unless change happens soon.
Kitchen Countertop Materials Reported Growing Most in Demand, March 2023
Choose to Not Distribute, Buy or Specify Quartz
The most immediate and obvious thing that could happen is that homeowners, designers, and commercial specifiers can stop using the material now that they know it’s contributed to a substantial increase of silicosis deaths and lung cancer among other problems. Distributors or fabricators could also ban the material, making in inaccessible.
Commercial firms are already starting to crack down on specifications and are now stricter than ever on requiring materials to meet stringent health, safety, and environmental standards. Given the abundance of information we now have, I would be very surprised if the specifications landscape stayed the same.
Increase of Popularity of Porcelain Slabs
No material that has to be fabricated is excluded from risk, but other materials are known to have less risk. With the rise in popularity of hygienic surfaces with low maintenance, porcelain slab popularity may increase in the US, as it's already taking a lot of countertop marketshare in Europe and other places.
Low Silica Quartz / Low Silica Engineered Stone
Simply looking at the low & non-existent search volume of the phrase "low silica engineered stones" or "low silica quartz" proves that this has not yet come into play.
The sole fabricator in N.Z. already requires their factories to provide quartz with less than 40% silica content to protect industry workers. They were the first, but they won't be the last. Providers that focus on sustainability, like Caragreen, will have better alternatives, and be the first to know about safer material in the engineered stone category. Get a head start and learn about a few healthier materials here.
Julie Taury has thrived in the tile industry for two decades and held various positions ranging from retail sales to product development. Her unique background in distribution, manufacturing, strategic sales, and the A&D industry has built an unparalleled skill set to navigate the unpredictable surprises of the tile industry. Currently, she is the Chief Innovation Officer at Architessa, and is a remote trailblazer residing in Auckland, New Zealand.