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5 March 2014

Outbreak of silicosis among Spanish quartz conglomerate workers

Between 2009 and 2012, 47 cases of silicosis were diagnosed among workers from the stone industry in four municipalities in the province of Cadiz (Andalusia). Silicosis is a pulmonary disease resulting from the inhalation and accumulation of inorganic silica dust in the lung.

The victims, mostly young workers, had been employed in the manufacture and installation of kitchen countertops with quartz conglomerates, a material characterized by its high content of crystalline silica (70-90 %, compared with 30% in granite and 5% in marble). Quartz agglomerate has been used as an alternative to traditional natural stone since the 1990s.

Surveys were conducted among workers from the ornamental stone industries located in the four municipalities where cases had been detected. The result, published in January in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (IJOEH), is an estimate that in 2008, the year with the highest employment rate in this industry in Spain, the number of exposed workers was 224.

The survey also reveals the absence of strict preventive measures in the 12 affected family companies: water curtains, which prevent the spread of silica dust in the countertop cutting machinery, were present in only 32% of workplaces; in 35% of cases, opening doors and windows, or working outdoors, was the only form of ventilation; only 33% of workers reported having used personal protective equipment such as a mask. The survey also points out failures in relation to health surveillance: a third of the workers never underwent a chest X-ray.

Crystalline silica is one of the ten new substances for which the European Advisory Committee for Safety and Health at Work (ACSH) would like a binding occupational exposure limit value (BOELV) to be adopted at EU level in the framework of the revision of the Carcinogens Directive (2004/37/EC). Currently, crystalline silica is not covered by this directive.

In 2007, the European Trade union Confederation (ETUC) called on the Commission to both recognise that crystalline silica is a carcinogen for humans and to adopt a BOELV for it at community level.

Last October, the European Commission released a Communication announcing that all health and safety at work measures currently under discussion, including the revision of the Carcinogens directive, will be shelved until a new Commission takes office in late 2014.

Further reading:

  • IJOEH : Outbreak of silicosis in Spanish quartz conglomerate workers, January-March 2014. Abstract
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