Stonemasons and brick masons both work with stones, bricks and sometimes mortar to construct or repair walls, floors, walkways and other structures. They may carve or shape the stones and brick in some way, or may use them in their natural state. Stonemasons work with artists, architects, landscape designers, and even archeologists to analyze the use of stone and brick in modern and historical construction.
Prior to the mid-1970s asbestos was frequently used as insulation and a fire retardant in buildings (2). Anyone involved in the construction industry could have been exposed to asbestos in one or more of the many products it was used in. Stone and brick masons would have seen all of those applications, and may have worked with it more directly as an additive to cement, that both increased cement’s strength and increased its insulating capabilities. During the 1970s and continuing to the present day, more and more restrictions have been placed on the use of asbestos. Over the past 30 years, its use has decreased considerably. However, stonemasons, brick masons, and other people who were involved in construction may only now be showing the effects of exposure that occurred decades ago.
The risk has not gone away, however, just because asbestos is not being used in modern construction. Many times stonemasons and brick layers are called in to remodel older buildings, repair chimneys that have been damaged over the years, or assist in demolition of old structures while protecting the stones or bricks for reuse in a new construction. Any time workers go into an older structure there is a potential for asbestos exposure. Since asbestos does not break down over time, the fibers are just as likely to rise into the air during a remodel as they were during the initial construction of the building. Modern regulations require very careful handling of asbestos and the taking of special precautions to keep the fibers contained. These regulations aren’t always followed, however, and the stonemason might go onto a job not even knowing there is asbestos on the site.
Asbestos is a mineral that has immense natural fire-retardant and heat-resistive properties. It also has a tendency to slough off very small fibers when it is disturbed in any way. These fibers are so light that they float up into the air and can even be blown long distances. Anyone who happens to breathe in the contaminated air gets asbestos dust fibers in their lungs. When the fibers get into the lungs they irritate the lung tissue and gradually cause scarring.
Asbestos is also a carcinogen. Malignant mesothelioma is one of the worst forms of asbestos cancer with a very low survival rate. Asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, take years, even decades, to develop. When symptoms do show up they are usually mild and written off as something else. Early symptoms are generally limited to shortness of breath while exercising, eventually getting worse to the point of causing shortness of breath and mild pain even while the person is at rest. By the time symptoms are severe enough that people seek medical attention, the mesothelioma has often spread throughout the body. If caught early, usually as a result of an unrelated medical exam, doctors have had some success at surgically removing the tumor, but once it has spread, surgery is less effective. At this time there is no cure for mesothelioma. Doctors can only treat the symptoms of advanced mesothelioma, and they can try to slow its growth by administering chemotherapy or radiation. Because early detection is so difficult, but so important, anyone with possible asbestos exposure should get a thorough medical examination.