Occupational hazards of exposure to asbestos
For most of the 20th century, asbestos was widely used in the manufacture of fire retardant products. New uses of carcinogens were banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1989. However, older applications still exist in many commercial products, buildings, homes, and vehicles built before this time. Consequently, workers in a variety of industries remain at risk of occupational exposure to asbestos today.
Mesothelioma (a type of cancer that begins in the life of certain tissues) is the main long-term health risk associated with exposure to asbestos. About 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the United States each year.
US military veterans make up about 30% of mesothelioma cases each year.
Rates of asbestos-related disease have declined slightly since their peak in the 1970s. However, rates of new cases have largely stabilized. Accordingly, occupational exposure to asbestos remains a problem in workplaces today.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulate the most professional engagement with asbestos-containing materials.
How are workers exposed to asbestos?
Most occupational exposure to asbestos occurs when the worker inhales or ingests toxic particles. Microscopic dust can travel deep into the body’s airways or digestive system. Then, instead of being coughed up or digested, the asbestos fibers implant themselves into the cells and begin to cause their own damage.
Over several years or even decades, some people may begin to experience the side effects of asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma symptoms can be confused with other diseases. Early misdiagnosis of the disease is not uncommon. General symptoms of occupational asbestos carcinoma include:
- blood clots
- excessive sweating
- Unexplained weight loss
Family members of workers exposed to asbestos may also be at risk of developing mesothelioma and other related diseases. Typically, secondary exposure occurs when a person carries the fibers home onto their skin, hair, clothing, or shoes. In the home, it can contaminate carpets and other surfaces. They can also spread toxic dust into the air for loved ones.
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Occupations in danger
The following jobs are at risk of exposure to asbestos and related subsequent diseases.
Auto mechanics and others who work near vehicle repair areas may be at risk of exposure to asbestos. For decades, certain engine parts have been manufactured to withstand friction, using asbestos to resist heat. Many brake linings and clutch interfaces, for example, contain enough asbestos to put mechanics and maintenance technicians at risk for asbestos-related illnesses.
Exposure to hazards is one of the primary concerns of those working in the construction industry. Workers in construction and related occupations such as carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work are at risk for exposure to asbestos. Demolition and repair of contaminated concrete buildings and structures can release toxic dust into the air.
Working around the following asbestos-containing materials can increase the risk of occupational cancers among those in the construction phase.
- electrical wire
- Floor tiles
Unfortunately, electricians are at risk of occupational exposure to asbestos both in electric power plants and while working on construction sites. The carcinogen has been added to several electrical components to prevent fire, including:
- Insulation of cables and wires
- cement paper
- Fuse boxes and panels
- insulation board
- main electric meter
- resin plate
Every day, firefighters put themselves at risk of cancer. Long-term respiratory illnesses (such as occupational asthma) are common among current and retired firefighters.
In 2013, a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that firefighters have a significantly higher risk of developing asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma. For firefighters, the risks are nearly twice that of the general population.
First responders include paramedics, emergency medical teams, firefighters, police officers, and search and rescue personnel. These emergency specialists are sometimes called upon to work in or near areas with severe asbestos contamination. Furthermore, they may not always wear protection over their nose and mouth. For example, thousands of first responders developed health problems caused by airborne exposure from the fall of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11.
Asbestos is a natural mineral found in several types of mined deposits around the world. Miners are also at high risk of contracting many occupational diseases due to hazardous working conditions. In Canada, for example, some mines contain 10 to 100 times the legal concentration of airborne asbestos. Furthermore, 19% of the miners’ household members had respiratory damage as well.
Because of the many uses of asbestos in homes prior to the 1980s, real estate agents are also at risk of occupational exposure. Additionally, agents may renovate certain areas of the home, increasing their risk. Even walking or working near home construction areas can expose real estate workers to airborne asbestos from:
- Boilers and tubes
- gypsum wall
- textured ceiling
- vinyl floor tiles
Shipyards have many occupational hazards for employees as well as those who work nearby. Shipbuilding, cleaning, maintenance, and blasting operations involve a variety of chemicals and airborne exposure hazards. Several studies have concluded that asbestos is the main source of cancer risk among shipyard workers.
Asbestos was used to build many schools and public facilities in the United States prior to the 1980s. Prior to the Asbestos School Risk Reduction Act, teachers (particularly those who had taught for 20 or more years in polluted schools) were at greater risk of exposure to asbestos than other professions.
In schools that are not renovated, teachers may still be at risk.
United States Army
U.S. Army veterans account for nearly a third of mesothelioma diagnoses each year. The high rates of asbestos-related disease stem from the extensive military use of asbestos-containing materials until the 1990s.
Navy and Coast Guard personnel have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma due to poor ventilation of ships. People who have served in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps are also at risk for asbestos in:
- Aerospace components
- spare parts of cars
- Buildings undergoing renovation
- Pipes and boilers
Those who have experienced occupational exposure to asbestos and are diagnosed with mesothelioma can seek legal compensation for their illness. Speak with a lawyer about filing a lawsuit such as (n):