Asbestos Exposure at Work
Asbestos is everywhere, and nearly everyone is exposed to low levels during the course of a lifetime. While the specific amount of exposure that it takes to result in asbestosis or mesothelioma has not been determined, asbestos-related diseases are rare, and people who are casually exposed to asbestos present everywhere in nature do not generally get sick. The people at greatest risk for asbestos-related diseases are those who work in specific occupations or live with people in those occupations, were present at certain types of events, or live in highly contaminated areas close to asbestos-producing mines.
Mesothelioma often develops in those who work or have worked around asbestos for an extended period of time. Since it can take many decades before asbestos-related conditions develop, the exposure can be in the distant past.
From about the 1940s to the 1970s, asbestos was as common as wood in building materials. Asbestos is an amazing, albeit deadly, material. It is plentiful, lightweight, and indestructible by any known means. It will not degrade, burn, or melt. Except for the fact that it can cause life-threatening illnesses, it is ideal. Manufacturers embraced it, and building materials, like siding, insulation, wallboard, carpet, tile, roofing materials, and even adhesives were full of it. It can also be found in brakes, boats, and heavy machinery – millions of everyday products full of a deadly fiber. And yet most of us, even though we may be surrounded by this material, are perfectly safe because the fibers are bound to other materials and sealed inside solid structures. The tiny fibers are only dangerous when they are in the air.
That means that every person who ever worked for a manufacturer that produces products that contain asbestos is at risk. Miners who dug the material, or a related material like vermiculite, are at risk. People who work in construction, around heavy machinery, at auto plants or brake manufacturers, or at shipyards are at risk. Demolition workers, asbestos removal workers, roofers, heating and air conditioning workers, janitors, and firefighters who enter burning or demolished buildings are at risk.
A whopping 17% of all mesothelioma cases are either retired military or civilians who worked in Navy shipyards. A survey conducted in 1984 revealed that 79% of workers at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia had signs of asbestos-related lung disease, and 8% to 9% of workers wives’ also showed signs of asbestos disease. Asbestos is still heavily used in military ships and submarines.
Events can trigger special high-risk circumstances. The attack on the World Trade Center is a good example. Rescue workers, policemen, firefighters, paramedics, survivors, volunteers, and people who lived or worked nearby were exposed when tons of asbestos was dispersed into the air during impact. The true measure of this tragedy may not be fully realized for decades.
Any kind of building demolition or explosion that causes dust can put those nearby at risk. The risk increases over time, but mesothelioma cases have been documented following short-term asbestos exposure. All exposure is considered dangerous.
Evidence suggests that the family members of workers who are exposed to asbestos on the job are also at risk. Asbestos fibers stick to clothing, shoes, hair, and skin. Today’s strict laws limit the exposure for both workers and second-hand family members, but it may be many decades before the number of new cases of mesothelioma are on the wane.