The job title “engineer” is an unfortunately generalized one, which may refer to a wide number of specific occupations including a ship’s engineer, a construction or electrical engineer, a chemical engineer and even a railroad engineer (including one who actually runs a locomotive).
One risk all them share however is asbestos exposure, which has been part of virtually all industrial activities since the mid-nineteenth century. Asbestos has been used in everything from insulation to protective clothing intended to shield the wearer from fire danger.
Asbestos is an odd – and some say miraculous – substance that combines the strength and durability of stone with the flexibility of cloth fibers. It is these same “miraculous” characteristics that ultimately make it deadly, however – leading to diseases such as asbestosis, pleural plaques, and even several forms of asbestos cancer, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Asbestos is not a single substance, but rather a group of fibrous silicate (silicon-like) minerals, the forms of which include serpentine and amphiboles. Geologically, it is found among metamorphous rock, and is a product of that process. Metamorphism occurs when the structure, texture and chemical composition of rock is changed by means of any combination of heat, shearing stress, geological pressures and compaction as well as chemical reactions; examples include quartzite and slate.
Six different forms of asbestos have been widely used in industrial situations. The most common is chrysotile, so-called “white” asbestos. These fibers are softer and have a curled shape. Chrysotile, part of the serpentine category of asbestiform minerals, has been used in nearly everything from building insulation to automotive brake linings. Ironically, it was also part of protective “fire suits” worn by steel mill workers and race car drivers; it is believed that late actor Steve McQueen, who died of malignantmesothelioma in 1980, may have been exposed to asbestos as a result of wearing such clothing while driving race cars.
The other five forms of asbestos are in the amphibole category. Amphibole asbestos was commonly used in low density insulation board, acoustic ceiling tiles, asbestos-cement sheets and pipes employed in construction, water-pipe casing and insulation for electrical conduits. Amosite, or “brown” asbestos was noted for being especially resistant to acids and other corrosive chemicals; it was frequently used in chemical plants.
What’s The Difference?
In terms of health effects, there is very little difference between serpentine and amphibole fibers. Contrary to claims made by a certain chemical company, chrysolite asbestos is not “safer” than any other asbestiform mineral. It may do damage more slowly; whereas amphibole fibers are spear shaped and rigid, serpentine is more spring-like. Nonetheless, most of the asbestos used in the U.S. was of the chrysotile variety, and the results have proven every bit as deadly.
Medical researchers are not entirely certain how asbestos fibers cause healthy cells to become malignant. Current studies suggest that interaction with these microscopic fibers in combination with one or more conditions such as genetic predisposition, tobacco use, or even a virus known as SV40 may cause the cell’s DNA to mutate.
Where Might One Be Exposed
Engineers in various professions may have been exposed almost anywhere at any time. The general rule of thumb is, wherever there was danger from heat, open flame, electric current or caustic chemicals – and the facility was built prior to the 1980s – asbestos products were being used somewhere. Exactly where this might have been depends on the specific engineering field.
In filing an asbestos-related lawsuit, the facility or employer is not usually the party ultimately held liable, unless it can be proven that there was knowledge of asbestos dangers and management deliberately failed to act to protect its workers. Because it has been well-documented that the asbestos industry itself was aware of the health dangers and continued to market asbestos products while concealing their dangers from the public, it is usually easier to assign liability to an asbestos manufacturer or its corporate successors.