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The Risks of Silica Dust Remain High, Despite Decades Of Awareness

A man has tubes into his nostrils, he wears a blue Dodgers LA cap
Juan Rodrigo Gonzalez Morín, 36, of Sun Valley, must use an oxygen tank to supplement his breathing due to a long-term lung disease, known as silicosis, that he contracted while cutting and grinding artificial stone countertops for his job, shown here posing for a photo at Sun Valley Park in the Sun Valley neighbored of Los Angeles, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.
(Trevor Stamp for LAist)
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All it takes is a few years of inhaling silica dust and your life could be forever cut short.

Silicosis Has a Long Dangerous History

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This fact was known centuries ago. By the early 20th century, it became a public health emergency as thousands of American miners, foundry workers, sandblasters and stone cutters were dying from silicosis, the disease that develops after inhaling silica dust.

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The year was 1938. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. Labor laws aimed at protecting American workers of all ages were stamped in the books.

The U.S. Department of Labor released a 12-minute public service announcement warning of the dangers of silicosis.

The video explains what it is, what causes it and how it can be prevented. 

Cause of the Disease: Dust. 

Results of the disease: Disablement. Poverty. Death. 

Cure for the Disease: None. 

In this short film, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins states how damaging these fine particles of dust are.

In the film, a man, who the narrator said was once strong, is seen struggling to pick up his shovel and wheelbarrow. He’s coughing, and is unable to do a day’s work. He’s fired.

But this isn’t just ancient history. Even with all of the technology and workplace safety improvements since the 1930s, stone fabricators all over the world, including in Los Angeles, are still dying from exposure to this silica dust.

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Public Health Watch’s Jim Morris and my colleague, LAist’s Leslie Berestein Rojas, teamed up to take an investigative look at how a preventable respiratory disease that’s been cutting the lives of quarrymen short for centuries (all the way back to ancient Greece) is still impacting workers in 2022.

The reporters talked to Juan Gonzalez Morin and Gustavo Reyes Gonzalez, two of at least 30 people who spent years cutting engineered-stone countertop in the L.A. region and who now have an accelerated form of silicosis. Just like the man in the video from 1938, 32-year-old Reyes moves slowly, lacking energy and strength to do most activities. His life will never be the same.  

I have spoken to God. If it is my time to go, I am happy to go with him … If the transplant comes first or it doesn’t come, I have accepted it.
— Gustavo Reyes Gonzalez

According to their report, this outbreak in L.A. is believed to be the largest cluster of the disease in the United States. If Gonzalez and Morin don’t receive a lung transplant, they could die within a year. Lung transplants cost over $1 million and even that won’t give them back a normal life.

How can this still be happening? What has the Occupational Safety and Health Administration been able to do to prevent these illnesses? Has anyone held the manufacturers and suppliers of the engineered-stone countertops accountable? What about the employers of those who have fallen ill?

Jim Morris and Leslie Berestein Rojas answer these questions and more in this investigation.

As always, stay happy and healthy, folks. There’s more news below — just keep reading.

We’re here to help curious Angelenos connect with others, discover the new, navigate the confusing, and even drive some change along the way.

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Wait! One More Thing...

CicLAvia Is Back And Traveling Through South LA

People ride down a street on bicycles with the DTLA skyline behind them
CicLAvia, an open streets event, returns to South L.A. on Sunday.
(Courtesy Farah Sosa)

If you want to hop on a set of wheels and cruise down Central Avenue without any cars, then this event is for you. Only people-powered vehicles allowed! You can walk, too – and even bring your pooch. The next CicLAvia is on Sunday, Dec. 4 starting at 9 a.m. All the details are here.

It started in 2010, but there was a pause during the pandemic. Ever since August 2021, CicLAvia has been back in action. It’s a great way to be healthy, get outside and enjoy clean air at least for a few hours.

And this time around, I am finally going to try it out myself. Most of the How To LA team will be there so stay tuned for our coverage next week in the newsletter and the podcast. It'll be a first for all of us so we’ll share back our experience connecting with the L.A. community and getting to know the neighborhood of South L.A.

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