Inside the row of workshops in an industrial stretch of Pacoima, men labored over hefty slabs of speckled stone, saws whining over the sounds of Spanish-language rock.
Pale dust rose around them as they worked. Many went without masks. Some had water spurting from their machines, but others had nothing to tamp down the powder rising in the air.
"Nobody uses water," one man in a Dodgers cap said in Spanish when Maria Cabrera approached, holding flyers about silicosis, an incurable and suffocating disease that has devastated dozens of workers across the state and killed men who have barely reached middle age.
Cabrera, a community outreach worker with the nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful, urged him and others at the Branford Street site to try to protect themselves. Silicosis can ravage the lungs of workers after they inhale tiny particles of crystalline silica while they cut and grind stone that contains the mineral.
The disease dates back centuries, but researchers say the booming popularity of countertops made of engineered stone, which has much higher concentrations of silica than many kinds of natural stone, has driven a new epidemic of an accelerated form of the suffocating illness. As the dangerous dust builds up and scars the lungs, the disease can leave workers short of breath, weakened and ultimately suffering from lung failure.
"You can get a transplant," Cabrera told the man in Spanish, "but it won't last."
In California, it has begun to debilitate young workers, largely Latino immigrants who cut and polish slabs of engineered stone. Instead of cropping up in people in their 60s or 70s after decades of exposure, it is now afflicting men in their 20s, 30s or 40s, said Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary critical care physician who became alarmed by cases she saw at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center. Some California patients have died in their 30s.
"They're young guys who essentially have a terminal diagnosis," Fazio said.
In Pacoima, a 27-year-old father said he now has to hustle home from the park with his 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son because his oxygen tank starts to run out as they play. Leobardo Segura Meza said he could no longer run around on the soccer field or exercise the way he used to.
Nor is he able to work. For a decade, he made a living by cutting, polishing and installing countertops in and around Los Angeles County. Dust was everywhere, he said, and he was given only a dust mask — one he said was inadequate for the job — to protect himself. Sometimes he brought a hose and tried to attach it to the machine to reduce dust, but there were no machines dispensing water as they were cutting, he said.
He began to suffer a cough that wouldn't go away and lost his breath when going up stairs, he said. His weight dropped. At one point, he was hospitalized when one of his lungs collapsed.
Segura Meza had never heard of silicosis before he was diagnosed. "There's no cure for this illness. The only thing they can do is a lung transplant," he said in Spanish.
What he fears, he said, is that as more workers grow ill, "there aren't enough lungs for us." At a state hearing this summer, Segura Meza said two of his co-workers had already died waiting for transplants.
To warn workers about the threat, Cabrera and another Pacoima Beautiful outreach worker, Claudia Vasquez, made their rounds at the parking lot of the Home Depot in San Fernando, where laborers in long-sleeve shirts waited for people to drive up and offer them work. Few had heard of the disease.
"It's very dangerous, this illness?" asked one man in Spanish, leaning against a palm tree in the parking lot.
Cabrera told him there was no cure. She urged him to use wet saws to limit any dangerous dust rising in the air and NIOSH-approved respirators to avoid breathing it in. Workplace safety regulators have recommended a suite of measures including water spraying systems, ventilation and vacuum systems to clear dust, in addition to protective respirators for workers — ones covering the entire face if silica levels in the air are high.