Occupations At Risk
While everyone is at risk for low-level asbestos exposure, workers in a select few occupations are in jeopardy of asbestos exposure at potentially deadly levels. From the early 1940s through early 1980, an estimated 27.5 million Americans worked in long-term and close contact with asbestos. Today, these veterans, shipyard workers, construction laborers and others are dealing with the aftermath – a deadly and rare form of cancer called mesothelioma.
While widespread asbestos use has been all but eradicated in the United States, the dangers are still prevalent. Police, firefighters and emergency rescue personnel, collectively called first responders, also run a great chance of developing mesothelioma. At the same time, the family members of those exposed to asbestos, no matter what occupation, also run a risk of second-hand contact and have a greater chance of developing mesothelioma.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said more than 75 occupations are linked to prolonged asbestos exposure. Of those, several are the most common:
Military Veterans and Shipyard Workers
Beginning in World War I, asbestos use on military vehicles became commonplace. By World War II, government leaders mandated the use of asbestos on almost every vehicle in every branch of the military. Because of its superior insulating properties, asbestos was used all over ships, submarines and other vehicles. An estimated 1 billion pounds of asbestos was used each year during World War II in shipbuilding alone. On board Navy vessels, sailors worked in closed quarters to make repairs to asbestos walls, floors and insulation, putting themselves at risk for mesothelioma every day. In other branches of the military, asbestos was used to line electrical wiring and in brake and clutch pads on jeeps, tanks and aircrafts. Even though the dangers of the mineral were discovered early on, widespread use continued for decades.
From factories that processed raw asbestos itself to those that used asbestos in their products, the risk of asbestos exposure is common for factory workers across the U.S. In the earliest years of the Industrial Revolution, when asbestos use was in its infant stages in the U.S., factory workers unknowingly handled and worked around airborne asbestos each day. In some cases, asbestos was used in the machines, buildings and protective clothing. In other cases, workers handled raw asbestos fibers to mix them into products. Even as it became commonly known that asbestos was linked to mesothelioma, the work continued. It wasn’t just the hands-on employees that were put at risk. Clerical workers and others in the offices came in contact through second-hand exposure or simply by walking through the work areas where asbestos was being processed.
From the earliest years of asbestos use, construction workers have always been on the frontlines of exposure. Thousands of products utilized in construction contain asbestos, from bricks and concrete to insulation and floor tiles. Through the 1980s, construction workers were exposed to airborne asbestos daily. Even today, one study found that up to 1.3 million construction workers are still working in and around asbestos-contaminated areas. Of the multitude of construction jobs, drywall installers, masonry workers, roofers and painters are most at risk. At the same time, those who work in demolition jobs are in danger of asbestos exposure. Even though many states have mandated rules regarding demolition, workers and those who live near demolition zones can easily breathe in the fibers.
For decades, first responders have been in danger of asbestos exposure whether it’s due to a natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina that destroyed New Orleans in 2005, or a manmade one, such as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Often, first responders put themselves in jeopardy to save others. That danger is multiplied when asbestos from crumbling buildings becomes airborne. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, and other deadly natural disasters, aging buildings are destroyed when floodwaters and strong winds hit. In the months and years following, cleanup crews and construction workers who are removing debris and rebuilding the damaged areas come in close contact with asbestos. For those who helped rescue people from the Twin Towers in 2001, the risk of asbestos exposure was clear. Built in the late 1960s, both of the buildings contained thousands of pounds of asbestos each, mainly on the lower floors. As the buildings fell as a result of the attack, a thick layer of debris hung in the air. In the days and weeks following the attack, the debris settled over lower Manhattan. In 2004, the first of many workers was diagnosed with mesothelioma. She died in 2006 as a result of the disease.