Though the greatest dangers of asbestos exposure in the United States came from occupational settings prior to the 1980s, that does not mean that the risk has been eliminated. The deadly mineral continues to be used in a number of applications, and there is the additional concern of exposure from asbestos that has long been in place in our infrastructure and buildings. The damage that was done by those who knew that the mineral was hazardous to human health will continue to be a threat for generations to come, as well as to those who were exposed in the ways that are explained below.
Industrial Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos was widely used from the days of the Industrial Revolution until it was confirmed to be a carcinogen. The mineral has long been highly prized for its many valuable characteristics, including the fact that it is strong, does not conduct electricity, and is highly resistant to heat and flame. Add to this its availability and low price and it is no wonder that so many industries made use of it. What is more difficult to understand is that so many companies continued to use it after learning that it was causing so much damage to the health of their workers. This decision has led to untold asbestos exposure suffering, and billions being set aside to provide compensation for those who were harmed. The following industries and exposure are the ones in which employee exposure has been seen most prevalently.
Power plants are environments that utilize equipment that reaches extremely high temperatures. As a result, asbestos was used extensively to insulate pipes, boilers, machinery and other equipment. The material was particularly useful because of its ability to retard fire, which was valuable in a setting that was vulnerable to explosions. In addition to having been exposed to asbestos that was used on equipment, many of the employees wore protective clothing that was made with asbestos fibers in order to protect them from the heat. Power plants were located throughout the United States.
Shipyard workers who were employed between World War II and the 1980s are among those with the highest risk for asbestos exposure. This is because asbestos insulated against heat and fire, noise, and could be used to prevent corrosion. It made good sense to use the material in boiler rooms and to insulate electrical wiring, particularly in battle ships or military ships that were in peril of coming under fire from the enemy. The reason for using asbestos in these settings was to provide additional protection to those who were serving during the war years. Little did the American military know that in using the material to safeguard the troops, they were actually putting them, as well as those who were tasked with building and equipping the ships, at risk.
Shipyards are located on both the east and west coasts of the United States, and they proved to be vital to the American war effort. In the years between World War I and the time that asbestos was discovered to be a health hazard, over 4 million workers were employed in this setting, making shipyard employees among the most severely impacted by asbestos exposure.
Employees who worked in steel mills, and aluminum and iron factories required protection from the high heat of their environment, as well as of the equipment that they were using. Asbestos provided this protection, and those who worked in metal works environments were exposed to the carcinogenic dust on a constant basis and within an environment that was enclosed and often poorly insulated. As a result, many of these employees have been diagnosed with asbestosis and other asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer.
Construction workers faced asbestos exposure when they worked with the material initially, and now again when working in buildings being renovated or demolished. Asbestos was used on a constant basis in home construction as well as in administrative buildings like schools and hospitals and even in infrastructure projects like concrete piping and roadways. Because asbestos adds strength and protects against heat, it was used in concrete, in insulation, in plumbing and wiring, in drywall and joint compound, and more. That means that people who installed and built all of those building parts are at risk, and so are those responsible for dismantling them today. The EPA has issued strict guidelines for how asbestos that is in place is to be handled and removed, but there are many contractors who ignore these rules, putting their employees at high levels of risk for asbestos exposure and all of the illnesses that can go along with it.
Firefighters are exposed to asbestos in a number of ways. The protective clothing that they wear is often made with asbestos fibers, which protect them from heat and flame. Even more concerning is the fact that so many buildings that were constructed prior to the 1980s have asbestos hidden within the walls and insulation. When this material is damaged, its fibers and particles become airborne, making it easy for workers to breathe into their lungs.
The equipment that is needed to operate an oil refinery includes tanks, boilers, ovens, furnaces, and pumps. In the days prior to the discovery of asbestos’ dangers, all of these and many other parts of the oil refinery environment were insulated with asbestos. These environments were rarely well ventilated, making the risk of inhaling asbestos fibers even greater.
Paper mills and other industrial settings use many different high heat pieces of equipment, including those that are used to help dry out the paper materials. Asbestos was used to protect against friction, add strength to the equipment, and to insulate against flame and heat.
In addition to the insulation and fabrication of all of the tools and equipment specific to these settings, many of the buildings that contained these workers were also constructed using asbestos. That is why so many people who worked in these environments have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases: from the time that they reported to work until the time that they left at night, they were at high risk for breathing in asbestos-contaminated air, having asbestos dust fall into their food, and of bringing asbestos dust home on their hair, clothing and skin.
Secondhand Exposure to Asbestos
When workers in any of the environments listed above came home with asbestos on their clothing, skin or hair, they were unknowingly exposing their loved ones to the same asbestos dangers that they were exposed to on a daily basis. There is extensive evidence that this secondary asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, as many spouses of asbestos workers whose only exposure to the material came from laundering their husbands’ work clothes have been diagnosed with the disease. Similarly, children of asbestos workers who remember playing with their dust-covered fathers after they came home from work have been diagnosed with asbestos illnesses.
Occupants of Buildings Constructed with Asbestos
In addition to occupational exposure that comes from working directly with asbestos-contaminated materials, there are also risks of environmental exposure to asbestos simply from working in buildings that were constructed using asbestos-containing concrete, asbestos insulation, asbestos flooring and ceiling tiles and more. Among those who are most at risk are school teachers, administrators and other school staff, as most of America’s public school buildings were constructed prior to the 1980s when the use of asbestos was curtailed. The same is true for those who work in administrative buildings and hospitals.
Homeowners Whose Homes were Constructed with Asbestos
Asbestos insulation, drywall and joint compound, roof tiles, and other materials were frequently used in home construction prior to the 1980s. Though this material does not pose a threat when it is hidden or intact, homeowners who pursue do-it-yourself projects are at risk for asbestos exposure when they interact with asbestos. This is why it is important to have a home inspector come and look at your house prior to starting any kind of renovation or demolition project.