Mr. S has never smoked, but his lungs are black, and he has a hard time breathing. He’s 69 years old and feels like his retirement years were stolen from him. He hasn’t developed cancer yet, but he has faces a huge risk. What has caused these problems? Exposure to asbestos during his years working as a heavy equipment mechanic in the military.
Heavy equipment mechanics work on brakes and clutches on a regular basis. These and any other friction areas in heavy equipment have asbestos pads or liners. When the equipment is replaced or serviced, millions of asbestos fibers can be released into the air. For example, cleaning drum brakes with compressed air can release 16 million fibers in the one cubic meter of air around the mechanic’s face. Almost any work done on brakes or clutches releases enough asbestos fibers to cause an asbestos disease such as asbestosis or mesothelioma. Heavy equipment mechanics also do welding on a regular basis as a part of maintaining and fixing equipment. Welding rods also contained asbestos until the past few years. Although they may not have been a significant source of asbestos exposure for most mechanics, every exposure to a carcinogen increases the risk of ultimately developing asbestos cancer or other illness. Additionally, most heavy equipment has diesel engines, and diesel engines, even more than gasoline-powered engines, typically used asbestos fibers gaskets as insulators. Installing or replacing these gaskets, or cleaning the housing where the gasket sat, can also release asbestos fibers into the ambient air.
Asbestos fibers are so small that they can’t be seen. Asbestos fibers can stick to the hair and clothing of the mechanics, who can then expose their families when the asbestos dust comes off in their homes, cars and during the laundering of their clothes. Most vacuum cleaners don’t have fine enough filters to trap asbestos dust so vacuuming makes the exposure worse since the dust becomes airborne where it can be inhaled by anyone in the household.
Asbestos is a carcinogen. When it enters the body it gets imbedded in the lungs or in the membranes that surround the lungs. Initially the asbestos causes irritation in the tissue. Over a period of time the irritation can turn to scarring that creates its own health and breathing problems. As with all carcinogens every time a person is exposed to the carcinogen there is some risk that cancer will result. As long as asbestos is legal in the United States, OSHA has concluded that regardless of the regulations put into place, and regardless of how carefully those regulations are followed, there will be additional cases of malignant mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure due to work with friction materials.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the membrane that surrounds the lung. Like many asbestos-related diseases, mesothelioma has an extremely long latency period. It usually does not manifest until 20, 30 or more years after the asbestos exposure. The first mesothelioma symptoms are shortness of breath during exercise. This is a nonspecific complaint to which few people pay any attention. As the cancer progresses the symptoms get more significant and include difficulty catching one’s breath while at rest and severe chest pain.
When mesothelioma is caught early, doctors can remove the tumor and surrounding tissue to prevent the cancer from spreading. If the cancer has already metastasized, doctors usually try a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery to try to slow the growth of the tumor and to treat the symptoms of mesothelioma. There is no known cure, however, and few people live more than two years after being diagnosed with the disease.