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  • Writer's pictureJen Nickel

How many people were harmed in the making of your counter?

A hidden danger in a popular counter material

When it comes to kitchen counters, there are a lot of factors to consider. This is one of the most well-used and abused surfaces in your home, having to withstand heat, water, blades, bacteria and kids banging dishes. It can also be one of the larger investments in your home, so you want to make sure you get it right.

sustainable quality wood furniture

While looking for the perfect countertop material, the research process often follows the same order:

1. First you look at the aesthetics – What is the look you are going for? What type of countertop material will fit with the style of my home?

2. Then we look into the durability and performance of that counter material – Does it stain easily? Will it chip? Can it stand up to heat and water?

3. Next, you might ask about health and wellness factors – Is this counter material porous? Will bacteria be able grow on the surface? Is it toxic? Will it leach toxins into our food or into the air?

4. For sure at this point, we start considering the cost – What is the price per square foot? How much is this going to come to altogether with installation? Is it a worthwhile investment for our home?

5. Maintenance will also enter the conversation – How easy is this material to clean? Does require sealing on a regular basis?

6. Sometimes, sustainability and the health of the planet is considered – How does the manufacturing of this material impact the planet? Is it recycleable or biodegradeable at the end of it’s life?

One factor that is rarely considered in choosing a countertop material is social responsibility. How does the manufacturing of this material affect the people making it? Are those people treated fairly? Are they working in a safe environment?

For the last couple decades, we’ve seen strong kitchen counter trends of granite and other natural stone give way to engineered stone products. Engineered stone is a composite material made of crushed stone bound together by an adhesive, (most often polymer resin). The most recognized material in this category is quartz. There are a lot of great reasons why quartz is the number one countertop choice these days:

  • It is harder than natural stone, making it more durable and resistant to scratching or chipping.

  • It is completely non-porous, which means there is no risk of bacteria growth

  • It comes in a variety of colours, textures and patterns, fitting in with many different styles

  • It is easy to clean, and maintenance free. It does not require any routine sealing

  • Once installed in your home, it is a healthy, non-toxic surface ideal for food preparation

One factor that is often not considered when choosing countertops, or any building material, is the impact of the manufacturing process on the people making it. Quartz countertops contain crystalline silica. Silica, or silicone dioxide, is a common mineral that’s found in soil, sand, and stone, and is a component in a lot of common building materials we use today. These materials aren’t dangerous on their own, but cutting, drilling and grinding these materials create a lot of dust containing tiny crystalline silica particles that when breathed in, can enter deep in the lungs. Prolonged exposure to silica dust can lead to silicosis, an incurable, debilitating lung disease where scar formation in the lungs reduces their capacity to take in oxygen. Silica is found in varying percentages in building materials like asphalt, brick, concrete, drywall, and mortar, ranging from 10% to 50%. Quartz countertops contain up to 93% crystalline silica.

Workers in the quartz are working with high amounts of silica every day and are at high risk of developing silicosis if not properly protected. With high exposure, acute silicosis may occur within a few months, but chronic silicosis may not be diagnosed until 15-20 years after exposure. There is no cure or treatment for silicosis, and it can be fatal. It also increases the risk of other lung diseases like tuberculosis and lung cancer. These devastating lung diseases are largely preventable with proper precautionary procedures and equipment. But in many parts of the world, silicosis is wide spread, and millions of workers are still exposed to silica dust at unacceptably high risk. In much of the developing world, where jobs are highly sought after and employees rights aren’t protected, workers at stone crushing mills are exposed to high levels of silica dust for many hours a day without any protection and no awareness of the risks. Even in North America, many quartz counter fabricators do not enforce safety precautions when employees are cutting and drilling countertops in the shop or on site.

So, what can you do?

1. If choosing quartz counters for your kitchen, choose local manufacturers

  • Hanstone – manufactured in London, Ontario

  • Cambria – manufactured in Minnesota, USA

2. Ensure that the manufacturer and fabricator of your quartz countertops both have policies and procedures in place regarding social responsibility and safe workplaces.

  • Requiring respirators and/or other safety equipment for employees cutting, drilling or grinding quartz

  • Using wet-cutting to minimize dust

3. Look for countertop materials that are low silica or silica-free

  • Sintered Stone

  • Recycled paper

Learn more about healthy and sustainable countertop options.

Need help choosing the perfect countertop for your kitchen renovation? Contact INVISION Design Solutions to learn more about design services for your project.

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