Asbestos is a fibrous natural mineral that poses great danger to human health. It can be found in over 3,000 products, and human exposure can lead to life-threatening diseases, including lung cancer and Mesothelioma.
There are many ways someone may encounter asbestos, but the most common occurrence is by inhaling asbestos-fibers released when disturbing an/or working with asbestos and/or asbestos containing products. Asbestos fibers cannot be seen with the naked eye, but can easily be inhaled. This could result in asbestos fiber buildup in the lungs, which would lead to the formation of cancerous cells.
Though not limited to workplaces, occupational exposure is the leading form of Asbestos encounters. Exposure to Asbestos is also possible in private homes and public areas. Workers who are employed in construction and factory industries are at a higher risk for exposure.
Asbestos can be found in soils and rocks and among products used for commercial, industrial and domestic industries.
Here are some commonly used products that contain asbestos:
Drywall and Join Compound
Car and Aircraft Brakes
Those who are exposed to asbestos have a high risk of developing cancer. That risk is significantly raised when cigarette smoking and/or tobacco use is added to the equation. The use of tobacco products can weaken pulmonary function, which makes it harder for the lungs to work. Inhaling asbestos fibers for an extended period of time increases the risk of developing the diseases defined below.
Mesothelioma is a malignant or cancerous asbestos-related disease and deadliest. Mesothelioma has a latency period of 10 to 30 years, and it mostly affects the lungs, heart, and abdomen.
The following are the three main types of Mesothelioma and are named for the part of the body that they affect.
Pericardial Mesothelioma (Heart)
Symptoms: Chest pain, difficulty breathing, lethargy, pericardial effusion, tachycardia, heart murmur, irregular heartbeat, visible jugular, low blood pressure, cardiac failure.
Treatment: Surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.
Peritoneal Mesothelioma (Abdomen)
Symptoms: Breathing difficulties, anemia, weight loss, vomiting, abdominal swelling due to fluid accumulation, loss of appetite, nausea, fever, weakness, bowel obstruction, abdominal pain.
Treatment: Surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.
Pleural Mesothelioma (Lungs)
Symptoms: Chest and/or lower back pain, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness or difficulty speaking, blood clots, persistent coughing, shortness of breath, weight loss, coughing up blood, fluid around the lungs, fever.
Treatment: Surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.
Asbestosis is a non-malignant disease that is caused by asbestos exposure. The repeated inhaling of asbestos fibers, or asbestos dust over a long period of time can cause scarring of the lung tissue. This scarring is called Asbestosis.
It takes approximately 15-20 years after the last exposure to asbestos for someone to become symptomatic and develop Asbestosis.
Although there is no cure, patients with Asbestosis can live for decades if the symptoms are managed properly. Mesothelioma and Asbestosis are often mistaken for one another during the diagnosis period, as both diseases present similar, if not identical symptoms in patients. Mesothelioma is the deadliest asbestos-related disease, unlike Asbestosis, which a patient can live with the rest of his or her life.
However, patients with Asbestosis have a higher chance of developing mesothelioma in the future, compared to those with no confirmed diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease.
As for the treatment, there is no true treatment for Asbestosis. Asbestos inhalation prevention, by wearing protective masks, is the only way to avoid exposure and contracting an asbestos-related disease.
Lung & Other Cancers
Cigarette smokers who are exposed to Asbestos, are at a much higher risk of developing lung cancer than non-smokers. Although smoking cigarettes is the primary cause of lung cancer, Asbestos Exposure significantly worsens the prognosis for a lung cancer patient.
In 2017, more than 220,000 lung cancer cases were diagnosed in the U.S. and four percent were due to Asbestos exposure. However, many studies show the cause-effect relationship of asbestos with lung cancer. In 1986, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared lung cancer to be at the greatest risk for people in the United States who work in areas that are exposed to asbestos.
Exposures to asbestos is not limited to construction-related trades, they can occur in various occupations and even at home. Workers who are most likely to be exposed are the following:
Union workers have been fighting for protection against exposures to asbestos for a long time. They have called for bans and strikes just to improve the safety measures at job-sites. For many years, and even today, union workers are themselves the victims of asbestos-related diseases. More recently, The United Steelworkers Union recently lobbied Congress to amend federal laws to better protect union workers from exposures to asbestos and the consequences of those exposures.
Unfortunately, the harm caused by the aforementioned dangerous and deadly asbestos-diseases are incurable regardless of advocacy or union affiliation. The likely-hood of asbestos exposures are high in older facilities where the environment is not safe due to the abundance of asbestos and/or asbestos-containing materials used therein. Non-union workers, like Union Workers, require safer working conditions, better training, proper safety equipment, improved medical care, and employer accountability in order to reduce further harm from exposure to asbestos.
Pipefitters are workers who are responsible for the maintenance, repair, and installation of pipe systems. Typically, the difference between pipefitters and plumbers is that plumbers work with sewage or water pipes whereas pipefitters handle the transportation of chemicals, gasses, and acids. Pipefitters work in industrial plants with large scale heating and cooling systems.
Due to the type of work pipefitters perform in industrial and manufacturing plants, they have a higher chance of exposure to asbestos and/or asbestos-containing materials.
The occupation of plumbing has a long history related to the use and exposure to asbestos. Before the 1980s, asbestos was the main material found in most building products. The plumbers who worked during that era inhaled asbestos on a daily basis, and yet, had no idea of the risks associated with it.
For plumbers, asbestos has always posed a risk because of the prevalence of asbestos-containing insulation in the field of construction. Usually, hot water and/or chemical pipes were wrapped with asbestos insulation due thermal resistant qualities. It is also fire-resistant so plumbers have an easy way to cut and braze the pipes. Asbestos is also non-corrosive to protect steel pipes from rust. As a result, asbestos poses a risk to plumbers, which remains very high even today.
Auto mechanics who work in an assembling factory, as well as, those who work in an auto-repair shop or perform auto-maintenance on their own cars, handle asbestos-containing products that contain perilous amounts of asbestos. Auto mechanics who work directly on cars are not the only victims of asbestos exposure. Many auto technicians and mechanics take asbestos fibers home on their clothes and even on their cellphones. Passive or take-home exposures to asbestos can be as hazardous as first-hand exposures to asbestos.
Studies show that asbestos fibers can suspend and spread in approximate 75-foot radius after a single disturbance.
Recently, material advancements and safety laws have restricted asbestos products in automotive manufacturing industry. Notwithstanding, as late as 2002, original manufacturing equipment ("OEM") brakes and replacement brakes contained asbestos in the U.S. Even today, asbestos-containing automotive parts remain in the market.
Automotive asbestos-containing products include:
Disc Brake Pads
To this day, a large number of electricians who worked during the mid-20th Century are being diagnosed with Mesothelioma. Like insulating pipes, asbestos was considered an ideal substance to use in manufacturing electrical products because it is an excellent insulator for thermal transfer of heat. It also has a neutral conductivity that makes it an ideal insulator for electrical wires.
Wires, cables, electric ducts, circuit breakers, arc chutes, terminal boards, and raceways are filled or contain with asbestos to prevent fires from electrical shots but they put every electrician’s life at risk.
Just like auto mechanics, aircraft mechanics also have a high risk of being exposed to asbestos. Although planes are designed to operate for hundreds of years, materials used in them need to be maintained, repaired, and/or replaced. Prior too and during the 1970s, asbestos was used in the construction of aircrafts, as well as, in various products within the aircrafts, such as brakes, gaskets, clamps, electrical wires, among others.
Because of its insulation property, asbestos is considered a natural compound for isolating heat, cold and noise in airplane cockpits. The brake linings of an aircraft is considered as the main space for airborne asbestos dust for aircraft mechanics. Despite all the regulations in aircraft industry, we see cases of asbestos--related cancers in the aircraft mechanics.
Construction workers fall under many broad specialties, such as:
Industrial: Construction of factories, industrial level plants and large complexes.
Commercial: Construction of apartments, homes and office buildings.
Civil: Construction of infrastructure including roads, airports, and railway transportation systems.
In the past, Asbestos was considered to be the ideal construction material and was added to raw materials to make the end product lighter, stronger, fireproof and thermally stable. Asbestos was in abundance, simple to work with and inexpensive to purchase. Construction workers still cut, drill, sand and shape all sorts of Asbestos-based building products before installing them in their final state which makes them exposed to Asbestos to a higher degree.
If there is an occupation that is riskier than all, it’s insulators. They were once known as “Asbestos Workers” because of the almost exclusive use of asbestos in insulation. Insulation materials serve the purpose of fire resistance, which was used in almost every building in the U.S. and around the world starting around the industrial revolution.
Insulators were exposed to asbestos on a daily basis as a "normal" part of their work life. However, very few insulators knew how dangerous asbestos is, and how to protect themselves from breathing in this deadly material.
This gives insulators a higher risk of developing Mesothelioma, than any other trade.