In the construction and building renovation industry, roofers are among those who risk exposure to asbestos in the course of doing their jobs. Asbestos exposure can cause disabling or fatal diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer and mesothelioma, a form of asbestos cancer that affects the membranes covering the lungs in its most common form (Pleural Mesothelioma) and other body organs in rarer forms. From 1990 to 1999, the most frequently listed industry recorded on U.S. death certificates of asbestosis victims age 15 and older was the construction industry, with 24% of death certificates listing construction. A 1995 study in the Britain similarly found building workers to be at greatest risk of contracting malignant mesothelioma.
Asbestos In addition to its well-known use as a fire-retardant and heat insulator, asbestos also has high tensile strength as well resistance to electricity and chemicals. As such, asbestos was used in building materials including roofing felts, tiles and shingles. It was also used as a reinforcing agent in cement product.
Historically, asbestos was most often used in construction, and nearly 70% of asbestos produced now is used in construction. The risk to anyone working in construction can be high if the hazard is not recognized and if occupational health and safety standards are not enforced. In the U.S., asbestos use in building materials was common before 1980 but was reduced in new construction after that, however, as late as 2002, the U.S. Senate was still discussing whether or not to ban the use of asbestos in roofing shingles. Even today, roofers who remove older roofs still face the possibility of their work disturbing asbestos fibers. They may also be exposed to asbestos dust created by the activities of other people at the job site especially if proper safety precautions aren’t taken with other asbestos-containing materials.
In addition to working on roofs, some roofers use their waterproofing expertise to work on masonry and concrete walls and floors, including foundations. To prepare surfaces for waterproofing, they may hammer and chisel away rough spots, before applying a coat of liquid waterproofing compound. If the concrete contained asbestos, this can release asbestos dust. Roofers also install equipment such as ventilation ducts and attic fans, which requires cutting through roofs, another activity that can disturb asbestos fibers.
In the United Kingdom, a former roofer was awarded 160,000 pounds (approximately $326,000) in 2007 after developing the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. The 57-year-old was exposed to asbestos in his 20-year career as a roofer.
Diseases associated with asbestos exposure generally do not appear for 20 or more years after initial exposure, so even people who haven’t worked as a roofer in many years may still be at risk for developing mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Such workers are urged to discuss their possible asbestos exposure with their doctor and to receive regular check-ups for any signs of asbestos-related disease.