As Prescribed: The deadly truth about synthetic countertops


SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS RADIO) – Synthetic countertops are found in homes across the U.S. While they may look beautiful, these manufactured countertops are taking a serious – and deadly – toll on the people who work with the materials.

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"I think many consumers would not purchase this type of countertop if they knew it was killing people," said Dr. Sheiphali Gandhi. She joined KCBS Radio’s Alice Wertz on the latest episode of "As Prescribed" to discuss work UCSF researchers and others have done to uncover the link between synthetic quartz and silicosis.

According to UCSF, silicosis is a lung disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust. This dust is byproduct of the various types of machining and handling manufactured stone. Many patients included in a study published by Gandhi and other researchers this summer were young Latino men who handled engineered stone counters for work.

Silicosis is when the silica dust "goes into your lungs and it embeds in the lung tissue and the lungs become inflamed as your immune system tries to attack the dust," Gandhi, an assistant professor of medicine with UCSF, explained. "Over time that causes a scar to occur in the lungs. And once there’s a significant amount of scarring in the lungs, people can’t take deep breaths, and essentially they feel like they’re suffocating."

Not only do silicosis patients feel like they’re suffocating, their lungs actually do struggle to bring oxygen into their bodies.

"It is incurable and fatal, essentially," said Gandhi. "And it’s completely preventable by preventing people from inhaling this kind of dust."

While artificial or engineered quartz looks like natural stone, it is often a combination of natural quartz and minerals with chemical resins and pigments. Today, it is the most popular material used for home countertops, but some workers didn’t always work with stone that had such a high silica content.

Dr. Gandhi shared that she works with patients who have worked in the industry for over ten years, and while they may have started with natural stone, like marble and granite, those stones have some risk. The silica amount in natural stone is only 30%. Modern countertop materials can be categorized as artificial stone or engineered stone. Many countertop materials that go by proprietary names are essentially 99 to 100% silica.

Gandhi and other researchers want to draw attention to the risks of this this workforce hazard in the home construction and remodeling industry,
and are calling for increased regulation of artificial quartz. Australia has already moved to ban the material due to silicosis.

"I don’t know if we will ever get to that, all the way to banning it, but I think we need... legislation," and new policies to make working with the material safer, Gandhi said.

You can also listen to last week’s “As Prescribed” on new technology that can make sports safer here.

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