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Some workers are coming down sick - or even dying - after cutting stone countertops for kitchens and bathrooms. Public health officials are particularly worried about dust created by cutting a kind of manufactured stone. This popular material gets made in factories, then it's cut to order in thousands of shops and businesses. But it's not clear that the dangers here are fully understood. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Carolyn Levine (ph) lives in Washington, D.C. When I stopped by, her kitchen was being renovated. Her old countertop was still around the sink - dark brown natural granite.
CAROLYN LEVINE: I just wanted something lighter and brighter.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Like the new countertop installed on the kitchen's island - it's white and looks like marble. But it's actually a composite material mostly made out of quartz.
LEVINE: I had two guys give me estimates, and they both were extremely emphatic how superior quartz is and that the granite does chip and stain more than quartz.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Here's the thing, though - quartz countertops contain a lot of the mineral silica - about twice as much as natural granite. And breathing in silica dust damages the lungs. At least 19 people around the country who cut countertops out of engineered quartz, along with other stone, have come down with severe forms of the disease silicosis. This makes officials worry about the thousands of other workers in this industry. And Levine says, as a consumer, she worries, too.
LEVINE: It's alarming. It's definitely alarming.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: All quartz countertops, whether it's Silestone or Caesarstone or any other brand, basically get created the same way.
UNIDENTIFIED CAMBRIA EMPLOYEE: How can I help you?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: A company called Cambria invited me to its manufacturing plant in Minnesota. Over the entrance, it says, through these doors walk the finest countertop makers in the world.
MARTY DAVIS: How are we doing?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning.
DAVIS: Hi, Mack (ph). How are you?
MACK: Good. How are you doing?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Marty Davis is the CEO. He shows me his entire factory. It churns out about 30,000 slabs of quartz countertop material every month. That means every day, 20 to 30 trucks unload large white sacks full of quartz. Some of it's a powder, almost like flour, while some is like little pebbles.
DAVIS: It's about 30 million pounds of quartz a month - so about a million pounds a day.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: A million pounds of quartz a day?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says this place has millions of dollars' worth of air handling systems to control dust.
DAVIS: There's no good dust - zero.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: We put on white disposable respirators and go past a sign warning of silica into a huge room with mechanical mixers. Here, quartz gets combined with pigments plus a binder to make it stick together. The mixture gets spread out onto a giant baking sheet. It goes through a machine that vibrates and kind of thumps it.
The result is a compressed slab that, at first, is soft.
DAVIS: You can touch it and feel how it is right now.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It feels like cookie dough almost.
DAVIS: Yeah, that's exactly what it is.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The slab hardens when it gets heated, then cooled and polished. We walk past rows of colorful slabs all ready to be sent out to countertop makers. I ask Marty Davis, what responsibility does he have for making sure the people he sells it to will cut all this material safely?
DAVIS: You know, how do you police your customers?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the dangers of silica have been known for decades.
DAVIS: There's clear regulation and clear guidance and governance on how to process materials safely to control dust and respiratory inhalation of dust.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says he can't follow his product to thousands of countertop shops - that cutting is safe when companies obey worker protection laws. Some shops are careful to do that, like Capitol Granite near Richmond, Va. Paul Menninger is the owner. We watch big, computer-controlled machines cut through slabs, dumping up to 35 gallons of water a minute on the blade to keep down silica dust.
PAUL MENNINGER: We do not do it any dry work whatsoever. That's the only way that you can eliminate any risk affiliated with silicosis in the shop.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Machine operators and folks doing touch-ups with hand-held tools don't wear respirators or masks. Menninger knows the air here is OK because he recently invited in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which did tests. But he says there's a lot of shops, especially smaller operations, that OSHA never gets to. And the stone cutting industry is unlicensed.
MENNINGER: It's not like plumbing or electrical or HVAC or any of the other trades, whereby there seems to be a standard or an international code.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says if he had his druthers, dry cutting would be illegal. I talked to one worker in Washington state. For medical privacy, we're only using his first name - Juan (ph). Juan spent about four years cutting countertops - a lot of quartz. For the first couple of years, it was dry cutting. He says there was so much dust, he couldn't see someone 20 feet away. He says he wore a simple face mask that didn't provide enough protection and that no one told him about silica or the danger.
JUAN: (Through interpreter) At first you don't feel the changes a lot. Then later, with time passing, your body starts telling you that you're missing air - that you're suffocating and you're tired.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: In 2016, he developed a persistent cough. He insisted on tests to check his lungs even though his doctor said he didn't need them.
JUAN: (Through interpreter) When he did the tests, the doctor almost cried. He says, I'm sorry; you're right. Your lungs are very damaged.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's 38 years old. He has a wife, three kids. And he gets exhausted just walking from his house to his car. He can't carry in groceries.
JUAN: (Though interpreter) After this happened, they made lots of changes in the company. Now they don't cut like they used to. They bought a lot of machines, and the machines do most of the work.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: For him, the changes came too late. He's being evaluated for a lung transplant.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK FRIEDLANDER'S "NIGHT WHITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.