The profession categorized as civil engineers encompasses engineers in many different specialties. Civil engineers design roads, they work with architects in building design, they work with developers to design septic systems, and the list can go on and on. Any of these positions could have brought civil engineers in contact with asbestos and products containing asbestos, and therefore put them at risk of developing an asbestos related illness like asbestosis or mesothelioma. Additionally, civil engineers working in road design frequently would come in contact with the dust associated with building a new road. In many places throughout the United States, especially on the West Coast and in mountainous area, roads and even driveways were made with commonly occurring serpentine rock. This rock is associated with large amounts of asbestos. Any person in the area where this rock is being disturbed has the potential for breathing in asbestos fibers.
Buildings up until the 1970s relied heavily on asbestos insulation in walls, ceilings, floors, and shingles, as well as in furnace rooms and in gaskets. Although the 1970s saw some regulations put in place, the phase-out of asbestos in construction has been a gradual process. Civil engineers who worked in any form of construction design probably were exposed to at least some asbestos through that work.
Asbestos exposure is not limited to the past. Even today, gravel roads originally made with rock that contained asbestos can release that asbestos into the air when cars drive over them, when roadwork is done, and when roads are resurfaced. Asbestos does not break down chemically over time, so each new disturbance to the road can release asbestos over again. The same is true of remodeling old commercial buildings and homes. Asbestos insulation that was contained can be freshly exposed during a remodel. Asbestos insulation may even require removal. There are regulations in place today that are designed to minimize exposure to asbestos, but the potential is still there. If one person is lax with the regulations, or makes a mistake, everyone in the area may breathe in contaminated air.
Asbestos causes many illnesses, none of which show up immediately after exposure. Most asbestos-related disease, including malignant mesothelioma, which, in its most common form of pleural mesothelioma is cancer of the tissue around the lungs, and often doesn’t manifest itself for 20 years or more after the person was exposed to the asbestos. This fact coupled with the lack of symptoms, or very mild symptoms in the early stages of mesothelioma, make the disease difficult to catch before it has reached more advanced stages where the symptoms become more significant. It usually starts with a slight sensation of being out of breath during exercise. This progresses until eventually breathing is both difficult and painful.
When caught early, usually as the result of an examination for some unrelated issue, doctors have had some success in surgically removing the mesothelioma tumor before it spreads to other parts of the body. After the asbestos cancer has spread, or metastasized, surgery is not usually an option. At that point doctors try to slow the cancer’s growth with chemotherapy and radiation, but there is no cure. Mesothelioma is resistant to most of the cancer drugs available making it difficult to treat, but advances are being made in medicine at an amazing rate, so hopefully the prognosis for a person diagnosed with mesothelioma will get better within the next few years.
Since it takes so long for asbestos-related diseases to develop, anyone who has been exposed to asbestos at some point in the past should schedule a doctor’s exam to ensure that they don’t have a health problem they may not become aware of until it is too late for effective treatment.