Most asbestos mining and manufacturing in the United States has been phased out since the late 1970s. Prior to that, however, asbestos mines were not uncommon. The asbestos ore was located magnetically then removed from the ground through open pit mines. The miners blasted the rocks then hauled the rocks to a processing area where the rock was crushed and dried. The resulting gravel was then placed on a shaking conveyor belt. Because the asbestos was lighter than the surrounding rock it would move to the top where it could be vacuumed off. Obviously this process created a lot of uncontained dust that workers and anyone nearby could inhale. Although it is now regulated, asbestos manufacturing still occurs in the United States. Legislation is currently pending that would ban the further use of asbestos in the United States and that would mandate its removal whenever and wherever possible.
Asbestos is a flaky mineral that breaks into extremely small particles. These particles floating in the air can be inhaled just like any other dust or pollen. Once in the lungs, the asbestos dust causes inflammation of the lung tissue and over time can cause other diseases as well. Malignant mesothelioma is a form of cancer caused by asbestos. In its early stages this form of asbestos cancer has few if any symptoms. By the time the sufferer feels bad enough to get a check-up, the cancer has frequently progressed to the point where it has metastasized. This means that it has spread throughout the body. Although medical science has advanced a lot with regard to the treatment of cancer, there is still no cure for malignant mesothelioma, and the mortality rate is very high. Once the cancer has spread, doctors are limited to trying to slow down the cancer’s growth and treating the symptoms.
Asbestos plant workers include people who worked in a lot of different industries. For example, between 1952 and 1956, the Lorillard Company responded to news of the dangers of tobacco smoke by developing a new cigarette filter that could trap very small smoke particles. The material in the filter was finely spun asbestos. Not only were the smokers of Kent cigarettes exposed to asbestos, so were the makers of the filter, and even people who breathed secondary smoke from the asbestos filter cigarettes.
The people who actually worked in asbestos manufacturing had more direct exposure. Asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was mined in Libby, Montana from 1923 until 1990. From 1979 until 1998 the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conducted a study to determine the health effects on people exposed to asbestos as a result of working in the mine or simply living near it. They found increases in all kinds of cancers including mesothelioma. The report notes, however, that determining how many additional deaths were caused by mesothelioma is difficult since the form of cancer isn’t always noted on death certificates.
All asbestos workers, whether they worked in the mines, or in the processing plants, or in shipyards, should seek medical evaluation of their health. Asbestos diseases can take decades to show up, long enough that a person feeling a little short of breath may very well not think about the fact that 20 years ago he worked in an asbestos separating plant. Just as frightening is that family members of people who worked around asbestos may have been exposed as well since asbestos dust readily clings to hair, clothing and shoes. Asbestos plant workers and their families had more extreme exposure potential than most other people, so they should be especially vigilant.