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Quartz countertops are popular in today's kitchens. Tiny bits of quartz are combined to create counters that look like marble or granite. But there's a problem. Some workers in the U.S. have gotten severe lung injury or died after making the countertops. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on how the problems began.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Uble Rodriguez grew up poor in Mexico. He came to this country when he was 14 years old, speaking no English.
UBLE RODRIGUEZ: As soon as I arrived to the United States, I start working. In the beginning, I was working in a Chinese restaurant. I was a dishwasher.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He worked in kitchens for about eight years, but he wanted Sundays off to play soccer and go to church. So in 2000, his brother-in-law got him a job making countertops.
RODRIGUEZ: It was something totally different for me.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And the material he was cutting and polishing was also new for the American kitchen and bath industry. It was Silestone, made by a Spanish company named Cosentino. Cosentino started distributing slabs of this composite stone to U.S. countertop makers. It also ran some countertop cutting shops of its own, including the one in Houston where Rodriguez got his new job.
The business grew quickly, as Cosentino executive Brandon Calvo explained in a promotional video.
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BRANDON CALVO: When we were awarded the national, I guess, account business for Home Depot, I don't think we knew what we were in for. I don't think we knew how big it was.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kitchen designers loved how it didn't chip or stain. Silestone was featured in Time Magazine, Good Housekeeping. In 2005, Cosentino ran a Super Bowl ad showing basketball star Dennis Rodman in a bubble bath surrounded by bathroom countertops in the Silestone color Diana Pearl.
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UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: Silestone lets you bring your inner self to the surface.
DENNIS RODMAN: I am Diana Pearl.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: Naturally beautiful, durable quartz.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Similar quartz materials were being sold by competitors - Caesarstone, Cambria, Zodiaq. All those slabs had to be cut to the right size for kitchens by thousands of workers in shops around the country. Uble Rodriguez says, for the first few years, he and his co-workers were dry cutting - that means no spray of water to stop stone dust from flying into the air.
RODRIGUEZ: I mean, we see dust everywhere - even on the floor, in our hair and all our bodies - I mean, everywhere. We see dust everywhere.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Dust that contains the mineral silica is hazardous. Breathing it causes a lung disease - silicosis. There's no cure. It slowly suffocates you. That's been known for a long time. The Department of Labor made a movie about it in the 1930s.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A wave of fear was sweeping the country. Silicosis was taking its toll from the ranks of American workers. The cause of the disease - dust. Results of the disease - disablement, poverty, death.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And Silestone contains a lot of silica - up to twice as much as natural granite. Rodriguez says no one told him about the danger.
RODRIGUEZ: Nothing - they don't tell us anything about the product.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After a few more years, Rodriguez got married, started a family. But he stopped playing soccer. He got too worn out.
RODRIGUEZ: I was just thinking - oh, maybe I'm getting older. That's why - I mean, I'm getting tired so easily.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then he started coughing. In 2010, his wife insisted that he go to the doctor.
RODRIGUEZ: And he say, look; your lungs are really looking really, really bad. My report came back that you have silicosis. I had never heard that word before - never.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He learned that silicosis can get worse until the lungs fail. He was 33 years old.
RODRIGUEZ: I remember that I went to the church. And I told God, look, I don't know if I can handle it myself. And I started crying. For me, it was something devastating.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He told his bosses and eventually sued. The lawsuit was settled a few years ago with no admission of liability. Company documents uncovered during the case showed that a safety consultant had recommended testing the workplace air in 2002, a couple of years after Rodriguez started working. But the company didn't do it for seven years. Those tests, done the year before Rodriguez was diagnosed, showed workers were exposed to silica levels above the legal limit.
In a recorded deposition, Cosentino executive Travis Dupre said he had not been aware of the danger from silica dust until around 2003 or 2004 - and the company did make changes.
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TRAVIS DUPRE: We felt like we were doing what was reasonable. We had switched everything to wet grinding. We had moved into a new facility with better ventilation.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Their workers also wore respirators. But government regulations say respirators should only be used as a last resort if silica dust can't be controlled with vacuum systems or water sprays - because it's hard to properly wear a respirator day after day while doing manual labor. And over the years, safety agencies in several states have cited Cosentino shops for not using respirators correctly.
Inspection reports have also noted a lack of air monitoring to test silica levels. In Rhode Island, state inspectors did that testing in 2013. They found that workers were surrounded by about four to 17 times the allowed level of silica. The company told NPR that these citations were minor violations, the penalties were significantly reduced and all were fully resolved.
Public health officials didn't learn about Uble Rodriguez and his illness until 2014. It got their attention.
CHAOLONG QI: They had the very first silicosis case, I believe, in the U.S. in this industry.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Chaolong Qi is a researcher with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH. Officials in Texas asked him to examine the Houston shop. His team found high levels of silica when workers used hand-held grinders, despite the tools' spray of dust-dampening water.
QI: Sometimes, it's - the water may not be wetting the surface effectively. So they get a little bit dust coming out always.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says those little puffs of dust might not be a problem when working with natural stone. But when it's this engineered quartz...
QI: Which has much higher silica content - up to, like, 90% plus. That becomes an issue
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Cosentino later agreed to let NIOSH officials do research in its shops to test what methods could best control silica dust. The company told NPR its collaboration with safety researchers would benefit all workers in this business.
Cosentino let me tour one of its shops in New Jersey but not record audio. Travis Dupre showed me dust removal systems he said were installed a couple years ago. He took me to the employee break room. There, posted on the wall, were the results of recent silica tests. Every worker's exposure level was low - less than half what the government allows.
Uble Rodriguez is now 42 years old. He's on oxygen about six hours a day, and he can't exert himself at all.
RODRIGUEZ: Sometimes I just want to play with my kids, run with my kids or even go outside and walk.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: His damaged lungs - for now - seem stable.
RODRIGUEZ: I know it's going to get worse. I don't know when, but it will. Even the doctors have been telling me that I have to start looking for a lung transplant.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Cosentino is just one of many companies operating countertop cutting shops. There are thousands of businesses in the U.S. that cut countertops. Public health officials have found at least 18 other workers with silicosis around the country. And they worry there are a lot more.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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