Asbestos Exposure in High-Risk Occupations
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous mineral. Centuries ago, the durability and various qualities of these fibers made them ideal for building materials. Asbestos fibers are heat and fire-resistant, as well as resistant to corrosion and chemicals.
All of these properties made asbestos ideal for construction materials like insulation, drywall, paint, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, roof tiles, vinyl flooring, pipe insulation, etc. It was added to cement, plaster, caulk, and putties. It was used for its insulating and fire-retardant properties in protective clothing for workers in hot environments. Asbestos was also used in chemical plants, refineries and navy engine rooms as insulation for boilers. The automobile industry used it in brake and clutch pads.
Thousands of products contained asbestos, particularly materials used in construction, mechanics, insulation, fire-safe products, and chemical and power plants. Unfortunately, not until the late 1970s did the dangers of asbestos become too great to ignore. Government agencies began implementing regulations to decrease the use of asbestos and provide protection for workers exposed to asbestos-containing materials.
Unfortunately, those who worked mining, manufacturing, or using asbestos and asbestos-laden products before the 1980s are at high risk for asbestos-related illnesses, and those who currently work with older materials still containing asbestos are at risk for dangerous exposure to asbestos that could result in disease in later years.
Why Asbestos Exposure Poses Health Risks
Handling products containing asbestos is dangerous because when these products are damaged, drilled into, or cut open, the asbestos fibers within them are disrupted and can become airborne. Nearby individuals can unknowingly inhale these airborne, microscopic fibers, which will then travel into the lungs and lodge in lung tissue and cavity.
Because of the chemical makeup and durability of the fibers, the body is unable to digest or eradicate the asbestos fibers. This means the fibers remain, persistent irritants that gradually cause inflammation and scar tissue to build up. Over time, inflammation and scarring can eventually lead to a variety of diseases.
Types of Asbestos Occupations
While thousands of different products did and still contain asbestos, there are a few specific occupations that required close and frequent exposure to large concentrations of asbestos fibers. While no level of exposure is safe, those whose jobs required more frequent exposure to higher concentrations for longer durations have the highest risk.
Due to being fire-resistant, water-resistant, and resistant to corrosion, shipbuilders viewed asbestos almost as a miraculous material, able to prevent fires that would be so deadly for a ship at sea.
Consequently, manufacturers added asbestos to nearly every sort of shipbuilding material. It was used in insulation, coverings for pipes, engine and boiler rooms, adhesives, gaskets and valves, and was even mixed into the paint for the exterior of the ship. Those who worked in a shipyard thus experienced significant levels of exposure regardless of what their specific role in the shipbuilding or repairing process was.
Even the delivery and unloading of the materials posed a threat, as any disturbance to the asbestos-containing materials could lead to individual fibers becoming airborne and breathable. But those who worked in the boiler and engine rooms, and those doing the actual construction, repairs, or demolition of boats and ships faced the most dangerous levels of exposure.
The high-risk to this occupation is evidenced by the fact that nearly 30% of all mesothelioma lawsuits come from those who spent time in shipyards.
Truly thousands of materials used in building and construction once contained high levels of asbestos, and some materials, such as flooring and roofing tiles, still do. Cement, drywall, insulation, roofing materials, caulks, ceiling tiles, floor tiles, paint, and so many other materials contained asbestos.
As such, few occupations experience greater exposure to and risk from asbestos than construction, renovation, and demolition. Those working in renovation and demolition are at the highest risk, since they are more likely to cut into, tear down and truly disrupt materials containing the asbestos, launching the microscopic fibers into the air to subsequently be inhaled.
While most newer materials no longer contain asbestos, some still do. Furthermore, since renovation and demolition often happen to older buildings, current workers in the industry still face significant risks of exposure.
Due to its heat resistance and durability, asbestos played an important role in the manufacturing of car parts exposed to extreme heat and wear. Parts containing asbestos included brake pads and linings, clutches, hoodliners, heat seals, gaskets, and valve rings.
Especially in parts like brake pads and clutches, the asbestos materials underwent constant grinding and friction, creating a fine dust that settled inside brake housing and parts. When mechanics opened up these parts to work on them, the dust became airborne and easily inhaled by the worker.
While many car parts no longer contain asbestos and many manufacturers no longer use it, older vehicles, as well as imported vehicles, may still use parts with asbestos, and many brake pads still contain it.
Due to risks of overheating and fire, power plants require many heat-resistant and fireproof materials. Asbestos-containing materials such as pipe insulation and fireproofing sprays are plentiful in power plants.
Many power plant workers handle these products on a daily basis anyway, but the very nature of a power plant’s friction-producing machinery means that asbestos fibers are constantly released into the air where all workers, regardless of task, are at risk of inhaling or swallowing them.
When buildings and structures catch fire, any asbestos-containing materials can become damaged, allowing the asbestos fibers to become airborne. Firefighters and first responders plunge into the middle of these situations, with air that is potentially highly concentrated with asbestos. The debris and soot that settles onto their gear can also contain the fibers which, if not properly decontaminated, can be breathed in later or even by the firefighter’s family at home.
Furthermore, because of the fire-resistant nature, firefighter clothing, boots, and helmets once contained asbestos for added fire protection.
Many firefighters and first responders were exposed to extreme amounts of asbestos in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as were those who worked and lived near ground zero.
Military Asbestos Exposure
Unfortunately, the country’s veterans have faced even higher risks of exposure than the average American. Though veterans only represent 8% of the American population, they represent 30% of known mesothelioma fatalities in the country. This does not account for additional veterans experiencing or dying from other asbestos-related diseases.
For many in the military, they had occupations such as shipyard work, milling, mining, insulation installment, construction, manufacturing, demolition and the like, all of which exposed them to asbestos-laden materials. Furthermore, those who fought in Iraq or other countries where old buildings were damaged were exposed to air contaminated with asbestos fibers.
Asbestos Exposure in the Navy
Navy veterans especially faced an increased risk of asbestos exposure. Few branches of the military needed and relied on the fireproofing attributes of asbestos than did the navy.
As discussed above, the shipbuilding industry incorporated asbestos into nearly every component that went into making a ship, from the paint to the insulation, doors, floors, engine and boiler room materials, gaskets, cables, valves, motors, compressors, and others. Asbestos could be found in virtually every room of a navy ship, including mess halls and sleeping quarters.
For Navy personnel, then, asbestos was ubiquitous in daily life, regardless of their specific duties. Even when not at sea, the navy yard, with all of its construction, demolition, and repair work, was a constant source of asbestos-contaminated air.
Asbestos Exposure in Workplace Today
While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have put numerous regulations in place to decrease levels of asbestos contained in materials as well as to protect employees handling asbestos-laden materials, there are still occupational risks today.
For those who work in construction or who encounter building materials (including HVAC workers, plumbers, electricians, etc,) because they work with older buildings and materials that may be deteriorating or in the process of being renovated or removed, their risk of exposure is still present.
It is vital that employees in these fields be properly trained to safely handle materials containing asbestos and that those involved in asbestos remediation follow the strict policies and guidelines to ensure minimal to no contamination. Employers whose workers are at risk should also follow the guidelines to protect their employees and ensure a safe work environment.
Additionally, while there are regulations dictating the concentrations of asbestos allowed in materials, the proper methods for remediations, and the conditions that employers are responsible for maintaining, there still are no full bans on using asbestos in materials. Thus, the risks, while lessened, still remain in newer materials and for the next generation of workers.
For more information on asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, contact our Patient Advocates today.