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LA County Supervisors Take Initial Step Toward A Ban On Artificial

Jul 19, 2023

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took a preliminary step Tuesday that could lead to a countywide ban on artificial-stone countertops, the source of an epidemic that is killing workers who fabricate the products.

The county is ground zero for silicosis, a fatal disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust unleashed when the countertops are cut or ground. Public Health Watch, LAist and Univision first reported the existence of what's believed to be the nation's biggest cluster of the incurable illness in December. Last month, Public Health Watch reported that California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, had begun drafting an emergency silica rule and launched a special enforcement program in response to the outbreak.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion directing the county's director of public health to report within 90 days "on the options to ban the sale, fabrication, and installation of silica fabricated stone in the County, including a plan to educate and advise businesses, with options for the use of other construction materials with less health risks to workers…"

Should a ban on artificial-stone — also known as engineered-stone — products be imposed, it would be the first in the United States.

In a statement, a co-author of the motion, Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, said that two-thirds of the reported cases of silicosis in California have been in the county's Third District, which she represents.

"This is entirely preventable and wholly unacceptable," Horvath said. "We can end silicosis and better protect vulnerable members of our community by increasing awareness and education in coordination with our labor and public health partners."

The board's action Tuesday could have broader implications. The motion it approved also directs the county's chief executive officer to report within 60 days on "legislative and regulatory advocacy options at the State and Federal levels to educate regarding the health risks associated with the use of silica-fabricated stone, strengthening regulatory enforcement, and banning the product."

Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary physician at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in the San Fernando Valley, watched the supervisors’ vote in real time and called it a "huge win."

"The first step to protecting workers is to use the safest products and we know engineered stone has high silica content and is inherently dangerous," said Fazio, who has cared for more than three dozen silicosis patients. "This isn't the only material we can make countertops out of."

Since 2019, the California Department of Public Health has identified 69 cases of silicosis among artificial-stone fabrication workers, a number it believes to be an undercount. Most of those cases are in the Los Angeles area. All the victims are Latino men.

Jim Morris is editor-in-chief of Public Health Watch, a nonprofit investigative news organization. Kim Krisberg is a PHW contributing writer.