LOS ANGELES — Catching some fresh outdoor air is a treat for Fernando Bustos-Mondragon, a Los Angeles resident and father of four. He’s usually inside, sitting on the couch, tethered to an oxygen machine. 

“This is the control…when I feel agitated in my breathing, I can increase the oxygen,” he said pointing to the medical device next to him.

Life wasn’t always like this for 51-year-old Bustos-Mondragon. Before he got ill, he spent almost 20 years cutting, grinding and polishing quartz stone countertops for bathrooms and kitchens, supporting his wife and four children.

“It was hard work, but I got used to it and I liked it because it allowed me to carry my family forward,” he said.

But in 2022, doctors diagnosed him with a lung disease called silicosis. There’s no cure, and it results in a slow suffocation. They linked it to his work handling quartz, or engineered stone countertops, which have high concentrations of the mineral silica. The tiny dust particles lodged in his lungs, permanently scarring them. 

Bustos-Mondragon said he wore protection at work, including a mask, but he wasn’t told or was aware of any dangers of handling synthetic stone.

“We really thought wearing that mask was enough, and we wore the goggles to protect our eyes from getting hit by a rock,” he said.

Since 2019, the California Department of Public Health has identified at least 100 cases of stone countertop workers developing the disease and at least 10 have since died. The department notes that most workers were in their 30s and 40s when they died and there are likely more cases that have not been reported in an industry that employs at least 9,000 people across the state. More than 60% of cases are in the San Fernando Valley, where many stone fabrication shops are located.

Dr. Jane Fazio, a UCLA Health pulmonary specialist, has studied over 50 engineered-stone workers with silicosis and said it’s impacting mostly young, Latino, immigrant men, even in their 20s.

“Initially, they may have no symptoms at all and then progress to shortness of breath, maybe just with exertion or playing with their kid,” she said. “And then it becomes shortness of breath all the time and then a need for oxygen and then hospitalization and then really, suffocating… leading to either lung transplant or death.”

She said the disease isn’t new but is resurfacing because artificial stone has become increasingly popular.

“Because of the materials that are much, much higher in silica content than your average marble or granite and that is what is really driving these high exposure levels and making it nearly impossible for workers to protect themselves,” Fazio said.

A health epidemic also alarming California’s workplace regulator, Cal/OSHA, which estimates over 70% of stone fabrication shops are not complying with safety rules. It adopted new emergency requirements in December to better protect workers, including allowing officials to perform workplace inspections on the spot and issue citations.

“It’s taken many weeks before they can implement any citations to the employer or make them change,” said Eric Berg, the agency’s deputy chief of health. “It can be done immediately, like right on the spot. That’s a huge increase in protection.”

Berg also points out employers must also use “wet” methods to help suppress dust and give workers more protections, such as air-purifying respirators.


But some workers blame the epidemic on manufacturers and suppliers of engineered stone, including Bustos-Mondragon. His attorney, James Nevin, a partner with law firm Brayton Purcell, claims they didn’t provide customers with crucial information on how to protect workers’ health. He’s representing multiple sickened workers and suing over two dozen companies for negligence and product liability. 

“The amount of emotional distress and pain that these workers are going through is intense, so those are the damages that we are seeking in these lawsuits,” Nevin said. “In addition to the hope, is that the manufacturers will stop selling this deadly product, right? There are perfectly good other alternatives. They can sell natural stone.”

Spectrum News reached out to the companies named in Bustos-Mondragon’s lawsuit and only the company Caesarstone responded, saying that it does not comment on on-going litigation.

But the industry group Silica Safety Coalition, which represents manufacturers, fabricators and supplies, told Spectrum News this is an avoidable workplace safety issue and “workplace overexposure to respirable silica dust during stone fabrication/cutting, and resulting silica-diseases like silicosis, is preventable through compliance with state and federal OSHA regulations and requirements during the fabrication of all types of stone. There should be no dry-cutting, no dry-grinding and no dry-polishing in stone fabrication shops.”

Back at home, Bustos-Mondragon said he can’t really play with his kids anymore or go on family outings or work. His two oldest daughters are supporting the family while he awaits a lung transplant.

“I really hope my life changes when I get the call that I can receive my new lungs because waiting is hard,” he said.