The businessman Francisco Martínez Cosentino, leader in the kitchen countertops sector and who is preparing to go public, has admitted having concealed that the handling of his flagship product, the quartz agglomerate Silestone, caused the majority of cases of silicosis that have affected 1,856 operators diagnosed between 2007 and 2019, according to official data. The concealment of the risks of the product on its label meant that, after the brick attack and for two decades, Cosentino workers and marble workers from all over the country who cut the countertops breathed in the tiny crystals that have caused dozens of deaths and an epidemic of cases whose zenith pulmonologists have not yet glimpsed.
The agreement of the 71-year-old owner of Cosentino represents a reversal in the prolonged struggle of the associations of sick workers and opens the door to million-dollar compensation from a multinational from Almeria that in 2021 billed 1,401 million euros and obtained a net profit of 104 millions. The businessman has accepted six months in prison for five crimes of serious injury due to gross negligence in order to avoid the trial he was facing last week in Criminal Court 2 of Vigo. To mitigate his initial request for a sentence —of 2 years and 9 months—, the businessman paid 1.1 million in compensation to the five Galician marble workers —one already deceased— who denounced him for not giving clear warnings of the great risk he implied for their lives cut materials.
Despite Vigo’s compliance agreement, the company, which refuses to respond to this newspaper, denies the major and assures that “in no case is it questioned that the company did not inform about the characteristics of the material or the security measures necessary to its manipulation.
The concealment of key information for the health of thousands of people of this giant with 5,425 employees around the world is reminiscent of the strategy of tobacco or fossil fuel companies to avoid disclosing the damage caused by their products and to prioritize economic benefits.
“The product safety data sheet initially provided to [la marmolería gallega] Granitel reiterated the message that Silestone is not dangerous to human health and the environment, containing a series of confusing messages, more directed at the final customer of the finished product than at the workers who make countertops with it, not warning that the risks They were not presented by the finished product, but by its handling due to the percentage of silica it contains”, censures the prosecutor’s brief in a case that has been delayed for 13 years and whose sentence includes a second reduction for undue delay.
Juan María Rubio, head of Pneumology at the Hospital de Montilla (Córdoba), last Thursday. PACO BRIDGES
Rains, it pours. Cosentino’s admission, which acted “grossly negligently” according to the Vigo Prosecutor’s Office, comes after a ruling by the Bizkaia Court that in 2017 already reproached him for not having informed until 2009 that Silestone was a “dangerous” product, censorship that had already been carried out in 2010 by the Bilbao Labor Inspectorate as stipulated in the Occupational Risk Prevention Law. The Biscayan Court acquitted the businessman because the crime of reckless injuries had prescribed.
Cosentino launched Silestone on the market in 1991 and the Occupational Risk Prevention Law, which made it mandatory to report its lethal danger, came into force in 1995, but the firm included a risk label for the first time 10 years later, in 2005, information expanded in 2009 on labeling. Finally, in 2010 the company sent an email to 3,000 marble factories outlining the risks of the product and including cristobalite, the most dangerous variety of silica, according to the documentation provided by the company itself in the 2017 trial.
A disease beyond mining
The silent outbreak of silicosis, an incurable respiratory disease of professional origin associated for decades with mining in northern Spain, has spread in Andalusia due to the manipulation of Silestone that brought about the real estate boom, in parallel to other communities such as Galicia and Castilla and León for mineral extraction. But the cases are widely distributed throughout the country because the marble factories are the focus of the disease and they stain the entire territory.
The key is that marble workers and Cosentino employees develop the disease very quickly —between five and 10 years—, unlike the miners, who did so after decades of exposure to silica in the galleries. Silestone has a percentage of silica that is around 95%, while granite has between 20% and 30% and marble 3%.
Ángel Castellano, with complicated silicosis and total disability at 38 years of age, explains harshly from Montemayor (Córdoba), where the concentration of marble works has resulted in more than 80 cases among decimated thirty-year-olds: “When this started we used disposable hygienic masks, very basic . And now I’m short of breath.” Of the 20 years worked for him, he has only contributed eight, he regrets.
The professor of History of Science at the University of Granada Alfredo Menéndez requested the reports of occupational disease from the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migrations, and in an article published last August together with three researchers he combed the 3,320 reports for silicosis between 2007 and 2019, of which 1,856 correspond to stone cutting, carving and finishing. However, the real number of patients is much higher because many cases do not go beyond the official statistics. “Cosentino’s case will be studied as a business success, but also in occupational health schools for introducing a product ignoring its risks in order to hold the victims accountable”, he illustrates.
The professor of History of Science at the University of Granada Alfredo Menéndez. / ASSIGNED
Cosentino has registered up to 95 cases of silicosis between 2019 and 2021 alone, although the real figure is higher, since the company has closed dozens of confidentiality agreements with its employees, whom it indemnifies to avoid bad publicity and cut the cascade of lawsuits. “In the press section and silos, the company has recently fired more than 30 operators with years of experience due to poor performance so that they are not on the staff when they develop the disease,” says an anonymous former worker, who criticizes “the law of silence that prevails despite the deaths”.
More court appointments
The company’s legal outlook is bleak: it includes a criminal proceeding in Almería initiated by five former workers who have sued the prevention services for having hidden from them for years the medical results that indicated that they already had symptoms of silicosis. In parallel, another trial for hiding the risks of Silestone from a marble factory will sit again next July on the bench of a criminal court in Bilbao, accused of six crimes of reckless injuries and for which the Prosecutor’s Office requests two and a half years from prison, to Cosentino.
The Labor Inspectorate already sanctioned the firm in 2001 for endangering employees exposed to lethal dust in its huge industrial estate in Cantoria (Almería), some of whom later died. A month earlier, the Universal insurance company measured the exposure of certain operators to silica dust and found levels of 5,040%, 2,480% and 2,360% over the occupational exposure limit value for chemical agents in Spain, prepared by the National Institute of Security and Hygiene at Work. That is, up to 50 times what is allowed. Cosentino himself admitted that “for several years there was an unbreathable atmosphere” in the area where the Silestone plates are sanded with shot.
Years later, in 2010, another Labor inspector in Bilbao followed the trail of the labeling and verified that since 2005 the small Silestone label had only warned that “prolonged exposure to quartz dust can cause serious health problems, including pneumoconiosis.” ”. Until 2009, the label did not clearly show the risk of handling it: “Prolonged and/or massive inhalation of crystalline silica can cause pulmonary fibrosis and pneumoconiosis such as silicosis.” But for many marble workers who had inhaled the dust from the material because their masks were insufficient protection, it was already too late, and even then the information did not flow and the employers adopted the necessary security measures.
In Andalusia, silicosis is the first occupational disease and has accumulated 596 patients since 2007. A group of pulmonologists, researchers, unions and associations of patients have just launched the Granada Declaration, a document that seeks to reactivate the public strategy to prevent and tackle the serious ailment. The Board lacks a plan and a year ago it signed the protocol of the Andalusian Center for Occupational Respiratory Diseases (CAEROL), which was born with controversy due to the participation of Cosentino. “It is paradoxical that the company that registers the largest number of cases of silicosis recognized as an occupational disease in Andalusia is the most appropriate to act as a benchmark in occupational health and safety,” criticize the experts, who seek to create “a space for dialogue ” with the Administration to stop and alleviate the epidemic of cases.
The president of the Board, Juan Manuel Moreno, who named Cosentino the Favorite Son of Andalusia in 2019, met last Thursday with the president of the Association of People Harmed by Silicosis (Apsa), Francisco Torrico, but the Ministry of Health and Consumption admits that it lacks a plan after the comprehensive program (PISA) in force until 2021. “Most young people, without culture or defense, are not aware of what they have with the disease. They see that they are getting fatigued, but not further, and they are unaware that respiratory failure implies a canister or that they could die soon”, warns Torrico.
Francisco Torrico, president of the association of those affected by silicosis (Apsa), last Thursday after his meeting with President Juan Manuel Moreno. PACO BRIDGESPACO BRIDGES
The sociologist Catherine Cavalin, co-author of Menéndez’s study, compares the Spanish outbreak of silicosis with countries where they have also suffered, such as Israel, where scientific articles already warned of the seriousness of the problem a decade ago: “As a large producer of quartz agglomerate , now Spain together with China has become an emerging area of the disease, known only in a fragmentary way for being associated with long exposures in mining until recently.
Today the quartz agglomerate has lowered its success and only takes 30% of the market and porcelain tiles —with 10% silica— a 70% share, according to sources in the sector. Meanwhile, the trickle of deaths continues and the last worker who died two weeks ago was the president of the Galician association of those affected, Osílice, Juan Carlos Giráldez, 54 years old.
The microcrystal particles of the silica dust inhaled by the operators, due to their weight and size, penetrate the lower respiratory tract, settle in the alveoli, and the lungs defend themselves by forming nodules that cause massive fibrosis. The head of Pneumology at the nearby Hospital de Montilla, Juan María Rubio, warns that the end of the disease is still a long way off: “We are diagnosing more and more cases, I want to think that the plateau will reach it, but for now it has not arrived, not at all.” less. The most serious is yet to come and no one from the Health Administration has taken the reins, I feel like an orphan”.
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