In 1999 a San Clemente, California, man died from cancer he’d contracted as a result of years of contact with asbestos. At the time of his death the six-foot-tall man weighed 114 pounds. He wasn’t in construction, and he hadn’t worked in the shipyards. Rather, the man was exposed to asbestos during his career as an appliance repairman.
When referring to household appliance installers and repairmen, it is primarily those people who installed or repaired items like stoves, ovens, heating appliances and dryers that require some sort of insulation that are st at risk from asbestos exposure; however any appliance with electrical wiring that was manufactured prior to the mid to late 1970s probably contained at least some asbestos. The risk comes both from installations that took place prior to the 1980s when regulations went into place to minimize asbestos exposure, and from replacement of appliances in houses built prior to 1989 that may have asbestos lined-flues and asbestos insulation that could be disturbed if new holes have to be cut in drywall. Prior to the late 1970s and early 1980s asbestos insulation around solid fuel appliances was required as part of the building code in some places. Some people may also classify plumbers as appliance installers. Plumbers have the risk of exposure not only from insulation and asbestos gaskets, but also from some of the asbestos-containing compounds used in pipefitting.
Asbestos is a mineral that is both chemically inert and completely resistant to fire. It is also an effective insulator against both electricity and heat. Asbestos has been used for centuries because of these properties. The ancient Greeks and Romans used asbestos for clothing and for tablecloths because they could clean the item by throwing it in the fire. Asbestos use in the United States peaked between World War II and the 1970s. At the height of its popularity, asbestos was found in over 3000 different products.
The dangers of asbestos are well known. It can cause a range of respiratory diseases including asbestosis and lung cancer as well as gastrointestinal cancer. It also can cause malignant mesothelioma, a cancer of the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the chest cavity. Like other asbestos-related health problems, mesothelioma has a long period of dormancy before it develops into health problems. Often malignant mesothelioma takes anywhere from 15 – 50 years before manifesting itself.
The disease starts very subtly with almost no symptoms. The first thing a person might notice is a slight sensation of being out of breath while exeracising. As the disease progresses breathing becomes more difficult, and pain develops in the chest. If mesothelioma is detected early enough, the tumor may be surgically removed along with the tissue surrounding the tumor, and the person might not have a recurrence. Most people are not diagnosed, however, until after the asbestos cancer has metastasized because they don’t recognize the symptoms in time to seek early medical attention. If the disease has spread, doctors typically treat the patient with chemotherapy and radiation, sometimes in conjunction with surgery to try to slow the growth of the mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is resistant to most anti-cancer drugs, and there is no known cure for mesothelioma. Few people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma live more than two years after the diagnosis.
Anyone who has worked with household appliances, either as an installer or as a repair person, would be well advised to seek annual medical exams that include chest x-rays to try to catch any asbestos illness before it has time to become untreatable.