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Semiprecious Beads, the Moral Dilemma
It is really not my desire to be a downer or a bummer (am I giving my age away?), but if you are a person of conscience, you need to know that when you use semiprecious beads and cabochons, you are contributing to the health problems – and possibly deaths – of the lapidary workers who make them. In China, India and other third-world countries where these stones are made, the grinding process produces a large amount of quartz dust which causes a lung disease called silicosis. Simply put, silicosis is an accumulation of quartz dust in the lungs, similar to the black lung disease that miners get. It robs its sufferers of their ability to breath deeply. As a result, they lose their energy and vitality and become prone to other lung diseases (such as tuberculosis), and in some cases they die prematurely. Judging from what I've read, it takes a few years of breathing the dust to become affected, and it takes eight years or more to become disabled.
I love semiprecious stones. Even though I sell mostly glass beads, I generally consider semiprecious beads to be more beautiful. Nonetheless, the moral implications continue to plague me and I sell less of them than I otherwise would. In fact, it embarrasses me that I haven't stopped selling them altogether (actually, I did eventually stop).
Semiprecious stones have become increasingly affordable over the years, primarily because they are manufactured so cheaply in poor countries. When I was designing jewelry about 20 years ago, a strand of 8mm beads of most types cost about $8-$10 at wholesale. Now they cost $3-$8 and sometimes less. In mainland China, the beads are made in large factories which have clouds of quartz dust hanging in the air. In India, it is a cottage industry in which the workers grind the beads in their homes, thus exposing their entire families to the dangers.
Before I continue, let me add that using almost any product from mainland China poses ethical issues. Hours are long and working conditions poor in most factories, and migrant workers (who provide most of the cheap labor) are severely mistreated and exploited. Many of the exploited workers are teenagers. In most industries, however, the workers are not in danger of actually dying from their jobs, as is the case in the lapidary industry. (Let me mention here that the reason Wal-Mart, K-Mart and the other big retailers can sell items so cheaply is that most of their merchandize is manufactured in Chinese sweatshops. The prevalence of cheap Chinese goods has also caused many American manufacturing jobs to be lost.)
Some small progress has been made in protecting the workers in some of the bead factories, but most workers are still at risk. According to an article in the New York Times, one manufacturer installed large fans to expel the dust to the outside – although by the time the dust was expelled, it had already been breathed by the workers. Suction devices were also installed on some of the grinding machines. However, the article reported that air levels of silicon continued to exceed safety standards by large margins, and workers continued to leave the factory covered with dust. In India, a vacuum machine was developed which sucks up the dust very efficiently, but the article didn't say whether it was available commercially, or whether it was affordable. (The New York Times article is now several years old, and I don't know if the situation has changed in China.)
So what is a person of conscience to do? At first I thought, "perhaps I can find stones ground in developed countries where the workers are protected". But I haven't found any such stones. Since the beads from third-world countries are so cheap, it is likely that competitors in developed countries have long since been driven out of the business. (Since writing this, I have learned that there is a small stone-grinding industry in the western United States. However, it is impossible for a consumer to know for sure where any given stone has been made.)
If you can't stand to give up semiprecious stones altogether, then using less of them seems to be the answer. Glass beads, as far as I know, are not ground, so there is no danger of silicosis – although I have read that there is a silicosis problem in the glass-making industry in India. Czech glass beads are particularly safe to use, since they are made in a European country under tolerable conditions. (Someone once told me that child labor is used, but I don't know the facts.) If you continue to use semiprecious beads, you should intersperse them liberally with crystal beads, lampwork beads, cloisonné beads, ceramic beads, and metal beads. That is a small deprivation to suffer, and it will do a great deal of good.
One more thing (added later): Is it immoral to continue to use semiprecious stones despite the health issues? An argument could be made that it is up to China and India to deal with the health of their workers. Both of those countries are modernizing quickly, and for all I know, the situation may be improving. However, one of the things that I want to know is, do the workers know that they are in danger? If they do, and they choose to take the risk, that is one thing; but if they don't know, that is another thing. Of course, if they are poor and have no choice but to do such dangerous work, that is something else entirely. I'm not God and I can't tell you what is right or wrong; but I do think it is important to be informed. I will update this article as I get more information.