Electrical engineers play a part in the design of everything that uses electricity. That includes wiring plans for homes, commercial buildings, communications systems, electrical appliances and devices, medical equipment and a lot more. From the 1940s through the 1970s, and to a lesser extent up to the past few years, asbestos was used as an insulator for electrical wiring and could be found in products as diverse as hairdryers and heavy equipment brake pads, from insulation in boiler rooms to hot pads for the kitchen. Anytime asbestos was used in electrical design, an electrical engineer somewhere was involved. As a result, most electrical engineers came in contact with asbestos occasionally, and some had nearly constant exposure to asbestos.
Since the mid-1970s regulations have been reducing the amount of asbestos used in new products and in new construction. That does not mean that electrical engineers no longer are at risk for asbestos exposure. Home remodeling and building redesign has increased dramatically in the past decade. Homes built prior to the mid-1980s, and commercial buildings built before 1990, still have the potential to contain asbestos. When insulation, or ceiling or floor tiles that contain asbestos are exposed or moved during the reconstruction process, the asbestos can become airborne. Although regulations are now in place to protect against asbestos exposure, those regulations aren’t always followed, nor are they entirely fool-proof. If asbestos does get into the air, and an electrical engineer is at the worksite designing a new wiring system, the engineer risks asbestos exposure.
The reason asbestos was used so frequently as an insulator is that it is lightweight but strong, and has extremely high insulating properties against sound, heat, and electricity. It is also completely fire-resistant. As a result, it was easy to work with and performed its intended purpose very well. Unfortunately asbestos has a negative side as well as a positive side. It is a mineral that is made of fibers that separate easily, and can even be woven into cloth. The fibers, however, slough off tiny pieces whenever they are manipulated. These tiny pieces float in the air where they can be inhaled by anyone nearby.
When asbestos gets into the body it becomes imbedded in the tissue surrounding the lungs and lining the chest cavity. At first this causes irritation of the tissue. Later, the irritation turns to scar tissue that impedes the person’s ability to breathe. Additionally, asbestos is a carcinogen that causes both lung cancer and mesothelioma. Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer of the tissue surrounding the lungs. None of these problems show up immediately after asbestos exposure, but can take 15-40 years to develop. Even then the symptoms start out with mild shortness of breath during exercise. Many people don’t even notice it, and few of those who do notice it think it is anything to be concerned about.
If mesothelioma is caught in these early stages doctors have had success in removing the tumor and surrounding tissue before the asbestos cancer spreads. If the cancer has already metastasized, there is less doctors can do for the patient. Mesothelioma does not respond well to anti-cancer drugs that are currently available, and there is no cure. The best treatment is chemotherapy and radiation, sometimes combined with surgery to treat the symptoms of mesothelioma that in its advanced stages include extreme chest pain and difficulty in breathing. Although new treatments are being developed and mesothelioma patients’ prognoses are improving somewhat, few people live more than two years after they are first diagnosed with mesothelioma.