Used for centuries to repel fire, heat and some chemicals, asbestos was long considered to be a miracle mineral. But when scientists began discovering that this mineral was actually linked to deadly mesothelioma, views started changing. Today, thousands have died as a result of asbestos exposure.
Although asbestos use can be traced back to ancient Greece, modern usage started during the Industrial Revolution when cities like New York and Chicago were burgeoning. Asbestos was regularly used in all phases of construction work, even though many of the largest companies knew about the dangers.
For most people, asbestos exposure happens at work. When the microscopic fibers are released into the air, workers unknowingly breathe them in. There are certain professions that are more susceptible to asbestos exposure than others, mostly because these professions tend to work under dangerous, more strenuous conditions than others:
Asbestos has been used in military resources for centuries. In modern times in the United States, all four branches of the military -- Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines -- have used it in hundreds of applications, with a preponderance of its use increasing during World War II and the Korean War. That’s because shipbuilding was at its peak, with more than 4.3 million Americans working in that field. Of all the branches of the military, Navy veterans are at the highest risk for mesothelioma exposure because of the large amount of ships and the close quarters.
To make matters worse for Navy veterans, the military branch mandated the use of asbestos in all newly constructed vessels and vehicles in 1939. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the military began phasing out the use of asbestos-laden products. Because asbestos use is not outlawed in the United States, asbestos continues to be used in scores of products in the military.
In addition, military base personnel who performed administrative duties were at high risk for secondhand exposure because they worked closely with those exposed. Today, family members of military veterans who have constant contact with asbestos are also at risk for secondhand exposure.
In addition to those who worked on military ships, other shipyard workers also run a high risk of asbestos exposure. These workers perform a variety of functions from ship construction to maintenance. Even just before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in to limit asbestos use in the 1980s, the material was used in excess throughout ships. Today, it is still being used in lesser amounts.
Asbestos Use in Ships
From the very interior of the ship to the hull, asbestos has been extensively used on most ships prior to stricter regulations. It was used to insulate the pipes, in gaskets and sealing compounds to make the ships watertight and in the engine rooms to ensure the high heats could be contained. At any point, shipyard workers are susceptible to breathing in the fibers released by the asbestos. Most of these workers are never told to wear protective gear.
At the same time, police, fire and rescue workers are at a high risk for exposure to asbestos. This is especially true for those who work during disasters that damage older buildings.
9/11 and Asbestos
When the World Trade Center towers collapsed during of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the falling buildings released a toxic cloud of dust that contained asbestos. As a result, rescue workers have been diagnosed with mesothelioma. Deborah Reeve, an emergency medical technician (EMT) who worked at the scene, died just years later from mesothelioma. Some reports show that up to 70 percent of all first responders initially at the scene have shown signs of mesothelioma.
Natural disasters pose a threat to anyone involved, but for first responders, it is particularly dangerous. Because of the large number of buildings constructed prior stricter regulations in the 1980s, there is a danger of asbestos exposure when these buildings are damaged or destroyed. Recent hurricanes, such as Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012, caused significant building damage that put firefighters, police officers and EMTs at risk for asbestos exposure. The 2011 earthquake in Japan also released toxic asbestos in to the air, putting first responders there at risk.
From bulldozer operators to welders, construction workers have a higher chance of developing asbestos and related diseases than other kind of workers. That’s because many blue-collar occupations come in closer contact with asbestos than other workers. Construction workers built this country from the ground up, all the while being exposed to asbestos.
Construction Trades With Asbestos Exposure
Today, an estimated 6.5 million construction laborers work annually on jobsites across the United States. These include heavy-equipment operators, carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, painters, welders, steel workers and a variety of other workers. All of these construction trades run the risk of daily asbestos exposure.
- eMedicineHealth. Mesothelioma Causes. Retrieved from www.emedicinehealth.com/mesothelioma/page2_em.htm
- International Mesothelioma Program, Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma. Retrieved from www.brighamandwomens.org/Departments_and_Services/surgery/services/thoracicsurgery/services/mesothelioma/About_Mesothelioma.aspx?sub=0
- National Cancer Institute. General Information About Malignant Mesothelioma. Retrieved from www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/malignantmesothelioma