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Article on Occupational Asbestos Exposure.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous mineral that once was used extensively throughout the United States to help insulate, fireproof and strengthen almost everything. It was cost-effective and versatile, woven into fabric and mixed into many commercial and residential building materials. There were thousands of uses that ranged from heavy industrial machinery to light household appliances.
Unfortunately, asbestos also is toxic, and that realization led to a dramatic drop in its usage. Asbestos is no longer mined in the United States or Canada, and its use is severely restricted. There are six different types of asbestos – and their chemical compositions are all different – but all are carcinogenic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Inhalation or ingestion of microscopic asbestos fibers can lead to mesothelioma cancer, asbestosis or any number of other respiratory illnesses.
Asbestos in the Workplace
Workplace exposure to asbestos has dropped significantly in recent decades because of less usage and more safeguards, but asbestos illnesses are peaking today, stemming from the long latency period between exposure and diagnosis. It can take from 20 to 50 years after exposure before mesothelioma cancer is diagnosed. The peak of asbestos use in the United States came in the mid-1970s.
Workplace exposure is the worst in:
- Oil Refineries
- Cement Plants
- Power Plants
- Construction Sites
- Steel Mills
- Chemical Plants
- Textile Mills
- Asbestos Plants
- Automobile Repair Shops
- Paper Mills
Construction workers often encountered asbestos, including:
- Drywall installer
- Cement mixer
Asbestos Risk Today
Most exposure to asbestos today does not come from newer products, but from older ones where the asbestos has aged, grown brittle and is likely to become airborne.
Any commercial or residential construction built before the 1990s likely contains asbestos products. It could be in the insulation, ceiling, flooring, walls or plumbing. It likely is on the roof, too, even with newer construction.
Any remodeling, renovating, repairing or demolition of asbestos-containing products puts a person at great risk of exposure unless the proper precautions are taken.
Bringing it Home
Unfortunately, asbestos is more than just an occupational threat. The tiny asbestos fibers that become airborne on a construction or any work site can come home on clothes or shoes.
There have been too many examples in the past of exposure to asbestos by a wife who was washing the clothes of a husband who had spent the day working with asbestos. Children have been exposed while living in a home that was being renovated by a father who did not take the proper precautions.
Sources of Asbestos in Homes
- Boilers, Heating, Piping
- Electrical Equipment
- Exterior and interior paint
Military Use of Asbestos
No one used asbestos more in America than the U.S. military, which believed it was protecting the men and women who were protecting our country. Asbestos applications were designed to make everything safer and stronger, but they overlooked the toxicity of this dangerous product.
An estimated 30 percent of those diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer annually are military veterans, stemming from the asbestos that often surrounded them in the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marines in the ‘70s and ‘80s -- the height of asbestos use in America.
Asbestos was used extensively in the Navy, which covered its ships and submarines from end to end with asbestos products, knowing it would prevent fires and overheating at sea. The Army and Air Force used it, too, on planes and trucks and tanks, as well in sleeping quarters and mess halls.
Although the military has stopped most of its use of asbestos, many veterans are just now being diagnosed from long-ago exposure.
How Asbestos Hurts You
If asbestos particles are inhaled or ingested, the fibers can become lodged in the lining around the lungs or other internal organs. Over time, those tiny fibers cause chronic inflammation and scarring, which can lead to big problems, including the formation of mesothelioma cancer cells. Once fibers cause biological damage, the stage is set for a 20 to 50 year latency period for malignant mesothelioma to develop.
At its early stages, mesothelioma is hard to detect with even the most sophisticated technology. Early symptoms often mirror those of less serious respiratory illnesses. By the time symptoms become more obvious, the cancer often has metastasized, which limits the treatment options.
There is no cure for mesothelioma cancer, but there are curative treatment options that can help extend the life expectancy of someone diagnosed.
- Shortness of breath
- Dry coughing or wheezing
- Harsh breathing sounds
- Reduced chest expansion
- Pleural effusions
Not everyone exposed to asbestos will develop mesothelioma. Millions of people were exposed to asbestos, and just 3,000 annually are diagnosed with mesothelioma.
If you’ve had long-term exposure to asbestos and experience symptoms, talk to your doctor about it. If there is a history of cancer in your family, tell your doctor. Diagnosing asbestos-related health issues isn’t easy, but tests can be performed to give a better indication of what might be causing the problems.
The earlier a diagnosis is made, the better the chance of finding a treatment option that works.
Safe Work Practices
Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment, which includes providing the proper protective gear if you are working around asbestos. There are federal regulations that must be followed.
During any type of renovation or remodeling job, asbestos removal must be done by a licensed contractor. If you suspect there is asbestos on a particular job, bring it to the attention of the proper authorities.
If there are any questions about asbestos, request an air-monitoring test to determine the level of asbestos in the air. Medical professionals have determined that there are no safe levels of asbestos exposure.
Employers often provide medical monitoring for those working around asbestos. Take advantage, if that is an option at your workplace.
Protect Yourself and Your Family
- If you have worked around asbestos, stop smoking. The chances of getting asbestos-related lung cancer rise dramatically with smoking.
- Avoid disturbing any surfaces that might include asbestos in your home or workplace. As asbestos ages, it becomes more brittle and has more potential to become harmful.
- If you work close to asbestos, don’t wear your work clothes or shoes home. Shower before going home to avoid bringing home fibers in your hair or on your body.
- Don’t bring home dirty clothes. Have them laundered at work, if at all possible.
- Eat and drink in areas at work that are free of dust and fumes that could possibly contain asbestos.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know has been affected by asbestos disease, consider contacting the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, an independent asbestos victims’ organization.