Jobs With Increased Risk for Mesothelioma and Asbestos-Related Diseases
Though asbestos has been in use since Ancient Roman times, it was during the 19th and 20th century that it started to be seen as a nearly indispensable material. As factories, steam engines, and other innovations of the Industrial Revolution changed the face of England and the United States, the inexpensive material was lauded for its characteristic strength and resistance to heat and flame. Though asbestos was incredibly useful, its many benefits were eventually revealed to be hiding the tragic truth — it was silently causing sickness and death in those who worked with it and around it.
Asbestos Once Had Important Role
As the use of high-heat equipment in factories, engines, and other industrial settings expanded throughout Europe and the United States, asbestos use also increased. The material was present in nearly every setting, from shipyards to steel mills, from power plants to automobile assembly lines. Firefighters and those working in intense heat and near flame wore protective clothing that had asbestos fibers woven into them. Asbestos was also in great demand as a component in construction of homes, commercial buildings, and infrastructure. It was mixed into concrete for pipes and sidewalks, used for roofing shingles and flooring, and mixed into joint compound and insulation.
The occupational settings in which asbestos can be traced from the miners who pulled the mineral out of the ground to the factories and construction sites where the finished products that contained it were used. These jobs were the ones that built the economy and supported nearly every aspect of life, from the steel, fabric and paper mills where raw materials were processed to the mechanics’ shops that maintained vehicles. Hard-working people were just doing their daily jobs and making a living, and all the while they were breathing in asbestos fibers that would eventually make them sick. There are countless job settings in which asbestos exposure was an everyday occurrence: here are a few of the ones that have been most impacted by mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Mining is removing minerals from the earth, and asbestos is one such mineral. Asbestos mines are located throughout the world. The extraction process involves the creation of a great deal of airborne dust and debris no matter what mineral is being removed, and in the case of asbestos this created enormous health risks. Asbestos miners and processors were constantly exposed to the fine particles of asbestos that was generated, and this resulted in large numbers of them having been diagnosed with asbestosis and mesothelioma. Additionally, miners who were working to extract other minerals such as iron were exposed to asbestos dust, as veins of minerals are often located adjacent to one another.
Though all asbestos mines were dangerous, the American asbestos mine that is most notorious was located in Montana, near a town called Libby. This mine was owned by W. R. Grace. It provided a large percentage of the asbestos that was used in the United States throughout the 20th century. Not only were the miners exposed to the toxic material, but so were those who transported the asbestos from the mine and who lived nearby. Thousands of residents of Libby have been sickened or died as a result of asbestos-related diseases.
Personnel in all branches of the American military, and especially those who served in the U.S. Navy, were at risk of exposure to asbestos from the years prior to World War II through the time of the first Iraq War. Asbestos was used in countless applications, from brake linings of vehicles to the roofing of barracks. It was considered an essential component of Navy ships – its strength and fire retardant ability seemed essential to providing troops with protection against explosions. Asbestos was used as insulation in equipment as well as walls, as sound proofing material, as coating for electrical wires, and more. The multitude of applications for asbestos use made the military one of the asbestos industries biggest buyers, and is the reason why fully one third of those diagnosed with mesothelioma are veterans.
Of all the safety concerns faced by ships’ captains and crews, fear of explosions and fires is high on the list. Tremendous efforts are made to ensure that ships are fireproofed and well insulated. As a result, through much of the 20th century up until the time that asbestos was determined to be dangerous, it was used in the construction and outfitting of nearly every part of a ship.
The fact that ships were fabricated using so much asbestos means that those who built them were exposed to the carcinogenic fibers, and so were those who worked on them and lived in them. This is why such a high percentage of Navy personnel have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. From the welders, ship fitters and engineers who put the ships together to the boiler room personnel who kept them operating smoothly, all were at risk of inhaling and ingesting the fine particles of asbestos that floated in the air of their work environment.
Paper and Textile Mills
Though paper and fabric are not things that you would normally associated with an asbestos-contaminated environment, the fabrication of both made heavy use of asbestos. Paper making requires the use of extremely hot materials and equipment, and asbestos was essential to insulating them and the buildings that they contained. The process starts when the wood is pulped, and from that initial stage through to when it is refined, bleached, dried and packaged, it required that employees work in close proximity to machines that were made with a great deal of asbestos-containing materials. The most dangerous of these were the boilers that kept the paper mills operating. Those who were responsible for making textiles often handled asbestos on the job every single day, as it was frequently woven into material in order to make it fire retardant or strong.
Trains have been a part of the American landscape for almost two hundred years. They carried both people and materials, and they continue to be one of the most valuable forms of transportation in the American economy. Unfortunately, both rail yards and the trains themselves used enormous amounts of asbestos containing materials until it was determined that the material was dangerous It was used so extensively that it has been determined that almost anybody that was in the railroad environment on a regular basis – from mechanics to inspectors and conductors – was placed at risk for asbestos-related diseases.
Factory Workers and Plant Workers
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, factories and plants were poorly ventilated environments in which workers were crowded together in unhealthy, often crowded or high-heat conditions. Many of the items that factory workers were assembling were made with asbestos, and the machinery that carried those products along the assembly line also used asbestos in order to ensure that the conveyor belts operated smoothly. The handling and constant movement of the belts and asbestos-containing products meant that asbestos dust was constantly airborne, and the factory buildings themselves were often insulated and roofed with asbestos containing materials. Those who worked in steel and other plants were subjected to asbestos dust as a result of the high heat equipment used in cutting, sanding and smelting, as well as in the buildings themselves and the protective clothing that they wore.
Many of the hazardous work environments described here have one thing in common, and that is the presence of a boiler to provide the high heat that is needed in that job. The boiler workers who operated this equipment were generally responsible for making sure that the equipment was well insulated. This meant that they had a regular duty of maintaining, removing and replacing asbestos from the equipment, often working in close quarters.
Our first responders rush in to situations that are filled with smoke and flame on a daily basis. Though we tend to think of these as the greatest dangers that they face, the reality is that every time they enter a building that is on fire there is the risk that they will be exposed to asbestos that is hidden in the walls that are crumbling around them. Because almost all buildings that were constructed prior to 1980 have asbestos hidden within their walls, firefighters are among those who are at highest risk of being exposed to asbestos today.
Asbestos’ dangers were not discovered until the 1970s, and up until that time it was thought of as one of the most effective and inexpensive ways to insulate buildings and homes. As a result, insulation workers who either installed, repaired or replaced insulation did not wear protective gear and handled asbestos-contaminated products on a daily basis. Even today, those same workers are at risk for exposure from asbestos that is currently in place. Though there are specific remediation guidelines for how asbestos is to be handled today, it is not at all uncommon for those who do insulation work to encounter asbestos on a job site.
Prior to the 1970s, many of the components of plumbing were fabricated or insulated using asbestos or asbestos-containing materials. These include pipes, cement, joint compounds and tape used to ensure the strength and function of the project.
Because asbestos has a low level of electrical conductivity, it was frequently used to insulate wiring. This means that those who worked as electricians prior to the 1970s were exposed, and that those who are currently working in the field have a high risk of coming into contact with the material today while doing repairs, renovations, and installations in older buildings.
Auto mechanics and others who were responsible for making repairs on parts including brakes and clutches were exposed to asbestos almost every time they worked underneath a vehicle. It was a common occurrence for mechanics repairing brakes to breathe in asbestos dust, and that continues today. Despite the decrease in the use of asbestos in today’s American-made auto parts, many parts that are manufactured outside of the United States continue to use the deadly material, and that means that today’s mechanics are facing similar risk to those who worked on cars decades ago.
Postal Workers, Government Workers, Hospital Employees and Teachers
This apparently unrelated group of workers have one important thing in common: most of the buildings that they work in were build prior to the 1980s, and that means that their work environments were likely constructed using asbestos. Though the material is considered to be safe when it is unexposed and intact, when it starts to break down with age or exposure to the elements it can become a real danger. For this reason, schools across the United States are required to have asbestos plans in place and undergo constant inspections to determine when a hazardous condition needs to be addressed.
Carpenters work with and around so many different construction environments and materials that their risk comes from many sources. Though the greatest dangers were present in the past, when carpenters would saw through asbestos-containing products without any knowledge of the dangers, they are still at risk today when they are working on renovation projects. The demolition and removal of old cabinetry and walls often reveals asbestos-containing insulation, drywall, joint compounds and tiles, and when these materials break down the asbestos particles in them can easily become airborne and be inhaled into the lungs.