Asbestos exposure is one of America’s highest occupational health hazards. Millions of American workers experienced exposure to toxic asbestos levels over an eight-decade period
From the early 1900s until the mid-1980s, the nation consumed millions of tons of asbestos-containing materials (ACM) in almost every facet of infrastructure. Government regulations gradually placed severe limits on asbestos production during the latter twentieth century. However, many workers are still at risk of asbestos exposure today.
Rates of Asbestos Exposure and Disease
Over 27 million Americans had direct asbestos exposure in their workplace.
Besides direct exposure, others experienced secondary exposure by handling workers’ contaminated clothes, equipment and even riding in vehicles loaded with asbestos dust. People working directly with ACM had the highest risk of health problems. But others also suffered dangerous secondary asbestos exposure after being cross-contaminated with asbestos particles.
Asbestos exposure is directly responsible for countless health issues in over 10% of workers who had average levels of airborne asbestos fiber exposure.
Rates of asbestos-related diseases increase for people who had continuous, long-term exposure to large amounts of asbestos. The longer someone is exposed to asbestos materials, and the greater volume of fiber intake, the higher the probability of developing an asbestos-related disease.
Asbestos Exposure Permissible Level
Regardless of dose and duration, all authorities now agree there’s no such thing as any safe exposure to asbestos. From a practical point, there is so much asbestos still present in American homes, factories and vehicles that it’s impossible to avoid in many workplaces. All that can be done to reduce worker health risk to asbestos and set regulatory standards and suggested best practices for handling ACM.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), set an industry standard for dangerous asbestos air quantity. The current permissible exposure level (PEL) for all workers is 0.1fibers per cubic centimeter.
This equation is expressed as 0.1 f/cc. It’s steadily decreased over the 1970s and 80s when the original suspected safe PEL was set at 12.0 f/cc. Any airborne asbestos exposure above the PEL is prohibited unless workers are trained in asbestos abatement techniques.
Anyone exposed to asbestos levels over the PEL must be equipped with personal protective equipment including HEPA-rated respirators and approved safety clothing. These rules aren’t a case of government bureaucracy. Asbestos exposure is a serious issue, and regulations are in place to save lives.
Managing asbestos exposure needs a common sense approach. Asbestos products that have been long installed, sealed and left alone are considered safe. Millions of American homes contain asbestos materials in the flooring, drywall, paint, roofing, and insulation. So do thousands of schools, hospitals, and offices. As long as asbestos materials aren’t disturbed, they’re relatively safe for human exposure.
Highest Risk Groups for Asbestos Exposure
It’s when asbestos fibers are disturbed by any process that they become highly dangerous. That happened during all phases of handling asbestos materials.
Historically, these were highest exposure risk groups:
- Open pit and underground miners who extracted raw asbestos.
- Manufacturing workers who handled raw asbestos and produced products.
- Installers who cut, drilled, sanded and shaped ACM on construction sites.
- Maintenance personnel who disturbed ACM during repairs and modification.
- Renovators and demolition specialists who destroyed asbestos materials.
- Secondary-exposed people who handled contaminated materials.
Some industries and occupations were notoriously risky for exposing workers to asbestos fibers. Topping the list was the United States Navy, where asbestos was extensively used in every ship manufactured from the 1920s until the 80s. World War II was the peak period for shipbuilding asbestos consumption. Asbestos lined every ship from end to end for fireproofing and insulation.
Construction workers were also high on the risk list. Hundreds of construction products contained asbestos to make them stronger, lighter and less expensive.
Construction workers commonly suffered asbestos exposure from these products:
- Asbestos-containing cement in mortar and foundation concrete mixes
- Roofing shingles, fibrous-cement siding and insulation products
- Drywall or sheetrock, joint compound, tape and paint
- Floor and ceiling tiles as well as cabinet linings
- Fireplace bricks, furnaces, boilers and ductwork
Automotive and heavy machinery mechanics were no exception to lethal asbestos exposure. Most cars, trucks, busses and even bulldozers had plenty of ACM used in manufacturing. That affected assembly line workers and field maintainers.
This mechanical industry uses asbestos in:
- Brake pads and shoes
- Transmission clutch discs and plates
- Fire and soundproofing
- Gaskets, sealants and valves
- Belts and hoses
What Are the Types of Asbestos?
Asbestos is a general or generic name for two different groups of silicate minerals. The most common asbestos fiber exposing the vast majority of workers is serpentine.
Chrysotile asbestos fibers account for 90% of asbestos used across America.Chrysotile (the only occupants of the serpentine group) is also called white asbestos from its natural color. Microscopically, chrysotile appears as long and wavy strings or serpent-shaped.
Amphibole asbestos fibers comprise the second class. This group has five subclass members known as crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite. Under a microscope, amphibole fibers appear remarkably different than chrysotile. Amphobile particles look like shorter and bulkier crystals with sharp, needle-like spikes protruding from the mass.
Being so sharp, amphibole asbestos is far more dangerous than chrysotile fiber. Because chrysotile fibers are smoother and more flexible, they’re prone to passing through without attaching to lungs or airways. Amphibole fibers are like tiny mines that stick to the lung lining and dig right in. Crocidolite asbestos fibers are the worst in the amphibole group for causing health damage.
Who Develops Asbestos-Related Diseases?
Although millions of Americans were exposed to asbestos over a long time, not everyone suffering exposure developed an asbestos-caused disease. Medical experts aren’t able to conclusively predict who is more susceptible to developing one of the over dozen forms of asbestos-related diseases.
Whether some will develop an asbestos-related disease after exposure depends on a combination of factors:
- Dosage: The amount or quantity of asbestos fibers to which someone was exposed.
- Duration: The period or how long a worker had exposure.
- Type: Whether exposure was to serpentine or amphibole fibers.
- Source: What is the source of the asbestos fibers.
- Location: This depended on a great deal on ventilation in work areas.
- Individual: Issues like smoking greatly amplified exposure health risk.
- Genetics: Some were genetically predisposed to disease development.
- Pre-existing: Workers with pre-existing medical issues had a higher risk.
Asbestos is a recognized human carcinogen or cancer-causing substance. It’s officially identified as a banned toxin by world authorities like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as well as domestic organizations like the EPA, OSHA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This regulation has been in effect for the past thirty years.
Diseases caused by asbestos exposure have long latency periods. Many people who suffered asbestos exposure before regulatory bans are only now starting to display symptoms of asbestos-related diseases. It can take 10 to 50 years before asbestos diseases like mesothelioma develop.
Medical science can’t explain this latency length. It remains inconclusive why some asbestos diseases are benign (non-cancerous) while some turn into aggressive, malignant tumors.
Types of Disease Caused by Asbestos Exposure
Researchers have identified several diseases caused by asbestos exposure. Disease range from manageable, benign diseases to aggressive, life-threatening cancers. Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment range depending on the type of disease an asbestos-exposed person has developed. The type of disease someone with asbestos exposure develops shapes their prognosis and overall survival.
- Asbestosis: This is the most-common form of asbestos-triggered disease. It involves scar tissue forming over the entire lung interior surface. Asbestosis is not always fatal but does have a high mortality rate if not treated.
- Pleural Plaque: Plaque forming on lung or pleural tissue is also common. The issue happens when the body’s natural protein, collagen, responds to immune system signals when asbestos fibers attach to pleural tissue. Collagen calcifies or hardens and forms plaque deposits, which are harmless to long-term health.
- Pleural Effusion: Asbestos exposure affects the lungs’ inner and outer pleural lining. When the pleura becomes irritated by asbestos fibers, it causes an effusion or fluid buildup between the layers. It’s not particularly dangerous unless a mass occurs. Pleural effusions can be drained off through minimally-invasive surgery.
Malignant asbestos-related diseases are cancerous conditions, whereby mutated cells grow and divide out of control. Some asbestos-caused cancers are treatable in early stages while others are potentially fatal.
- Lung Cancer: Lung cancer is a common and deadly disease. Asbestos exposure only generates about 20 percent of lung cancer cases. Most are smoking related but are worse when combined with asbestos fibers in the lungs. Surgical removal can be successful before lung cancer tumors metastasize. Radiation and chemotherapy can also work.
- Mesothelioma: This is the worst disease caused by asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive condition caused by malignant tumors in the lung lining (pleura). Mesothelioma survival rates range from 1 to 5 years after diagnosis. Mesothelioma also affects the abdomen (peritoneal), heart (pericardial) and rarely the testicles (tunica vaginalis).
- Ovarian, Laryngeal, and Kidney Cancers: Asbestos exposure doesn’t commonly cause these malignant diseases, but cases are well-documented. Ovarian cancer is the most deadly form of women’s cancer while larynx and kidney cancer affect both men and women.
Compensation for Diseases Caused by Asbestos Exposure
Many people who developed a life-threatening disease after being exposed to workplace asbestos have received compensation from negligent asbestos manufacturers and suppliers. Many court precedents exist where claimants successfully sued companies that knowingly placed innocent workers at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma are the diseases where most court-ordered payments are available. Monetary awards include compensation for personal injury, lost income, and medical expense coverage. Families can apply on behalf of ill members or file lawsuits in wrongful death cases.