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Lung disease warning for kitchen worktop workers

27 March 2024

THE BRITISH Occupational Hygiene Society is calling for immediate action to help prevent further cases of a deadly lung disease, now being reported in the UK for the first time.

Silicosis, an incurable lung disease, has been known about for thousands of years. However, in recent years younger workers are being reported as being severely affected when working with the cutting and finishing of engineered stone worktops, widely used for kitchen refurbishment.* The disease is caused when tiny crystalline particles of silica, a mineral found in stone, are inhaled during cutting, breaking and grinding.

Modern stone kitchen surfaces can often have high silica content creating a risk when dust is not controlled during manufacture, fitting and demolition. The risk is to workers involved in the processes and not to homeowners.

A spate of silicosis in engineered stone workers has led to a ban of the material entirely in Australia, where poor regulation has led to widespread exposure. The United States is also taking emergency regulatory action. Reports from the Royal Brompton Hospital have identified at least 3 confirmed cases, weeks after a Government Minister denied in Parliament that there was any evidence of silicosis cases in the UK.

BOHS, which provides free expert scientific advice on controlling exposures to workplace ill-health has been the leader in providing advice on construction risks through its global Breathe Freely campaign. Materials to help manage the risks of exposure to respirable crystalline silica are to be found on Breathe Freely sites. The disease is easily preventable using standard controls, such as water suppression of dust, but is almost impossible to treat effectively.

While engineered stone is largely imported, the finishing use of engineered stone, particularly for kitchens, rose significantly in the UK. In 2020, it rose by 75% according to industry data. The UK is home to the largest engineered stone factory in Europe, employing around 350 people.

BOHS President, Alex Wilson explains, "Sadly, there is reasonable probability that the there are more cases that have not been detected or reported. Accurate diagnosis of silicosis is difficult and it can easily mistaken for a more common complaint, sarcoidosis, for example.

“It’s an old problem in a new and nasty guise. Like so many occupational diseases, it is really quite easy to prevent, but impossible to cure. It’s vital that anyone potentially being exposed in the engineered stone industry has access to appropriate medical surveillance, but more importantly, it’s vital that proper dust controls are used at all times. Anyone who isn’t sure if their controls are good enough needs to get expert advice from an occupational hygienist.”

BOHS chief executive, Professor Kevin Bampton adds, "The Society has provided feedback to the Health and Safety Executive on areas where current guidance provided by the Regulator might be further strengthened to ensure that industry provides effective controls and maintains vigilance. It also supports the work of an All-Party Parliamentary Group which is considering effective legislative and policy means to protect workers. Calls for a ban are not going to save lives, but education, proper workplace controls and awareness of the risks will."

* RCS content in stones by popularity in UK kitchen installation.

  • Quartz Worktops, include honed, sandblasted, or embossed treatment finishes, reported 90% silica content
  • Porcelain Worktops, maybe crystalline silica as low as 15%
  • Silestone varies across the range from reported 1%-50% and some up to 90+%
  • Dekton 5-11%
  • Sensa/Scalea 0-99%
  • Prexury 90%+
  • SilQ  51-92%
  • Obsidiana 7%

Note that, as well as the issue with RCS, there are other unspecified risks from metal additives and toxicity of resin.