Maintenance workers who worked in textile mills, steel mills, chemical plants, or around industrial shops or boiler rooms prior to the 1980s are at risk for exposure to asbestos. Current maintenance workers who are employed in places that haven’t undergone asbestos abatement to remove asbestos can be exposed to asbestos when they engage in maintenance and repair activities in the building. In fact, cleaning up the asbestos is one of the more dangerous jobs since any time asbestos fibers are disturbed they can become airborne and are subject to being inhaled by workers in the area.
Even today the United States government hasn’t cleaned up all of its own asbestos, much less forced the private sector to remove asbestos hazards. In 1998 a group of men who worked for the Architect of the Capitol, a government agency in charge of maintaining the heating and cooling systems for the White House, Supreme Court, and Capitol buildings discovered that the tunnels they work in are full of asbestos. They requested that a cleanup be done, but were branded troublemakers and were harassed by their employer for seeking independent medical evaluations. No cleanup took place. In October 2006 they filed a whistle-blower complaint about their work conditions.
Plumbing and electrical work, frequently within the job description of maintenance workers, often involves asbestos insulation and gaskets. Another branch of maintenance workers do vehicular and fleet maintenance. These workers come into contact with asbestos in engine gaskets and in brake pad linings. Studies have confirmed that maintenance workers, across the board, have high levels of on-the-job asbestos exposure, which can lead to a host of asbestos diseases like asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, and more.
The significance of asbestos problems has been known for centuries. As far back as ancient Greece scholars noted that slaves who worked with asbestos seemed to have problems breathing and died early. Further studies were done both in England and the United States in the 1920s and 30s. There was even some asbestos regulation drafted during that time period. Knowledge of the dangers of asbestos, however, didn’t stop the government and industry from using more and more asbestos from before World War II until the late 1970s. While usage has been reduced a lot since then and some countries have even banned its use, asbestos is still legal, though highly regulated, within the United States.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is lightweight, can be woven into fabric, is chemically inert, inflammable, and a highly efficient insulator against both electricity and heat. During the height of its popularity asbestos was used in more than 3000 products. The danger of asbestos is associated with the dust that comes off the fibers. When it is inhaled, asbestos dust causes several health problems. It is also a carcinogen, meaning that there is a strong link between this mineral and asbestos cancer. Of the several types of cancer that asbestos causes, the deadliest is mesothelioma. Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer of the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the chest and abdominal cavity. As with most asbestos-related diseases the latency period for mesothelioma can be several decades. When it does manifest itself, the first symptom, shortness of breath, is generally so mild that it goes unnoticed. In later stages of mesothelioma, the symptoms are more severe and include severe chest pain and inability to breathe even while at rest.
External Radiation Therapy Surgery is the best option for mesothelioma that is caught early enough that it hasn’t had the opportunity to spread. If it has metastasized, doctors are more likely to rely on chemotherapy and radiation to try to slow the growth of the cancer. Mesothelioma is resistant to most anti-cancer drugs, and there is no known cure. Most people live less than two years after initial diagnosis.