Grinding machine operators use machines to grind down metal into the desired shape. Frequently part of that is shaping metal that may have asbestos coatings. Also, grinding machine operators sometimes rework brakes and other mechanical parts that have asbestos pads or linings. Even if the asbestos pad is removed a lot of asbestos dust remains, and grinding makes it worse. In a 1986 report, the Environmental Protection Agency went so far as to say that regrinding an old brake block lining could release seven million asbestos fibers per cubic meter, and a light grinding of new linings could release almost five million asbestos fibers per cubic meter. Further, medical experts agree that people who work with friction products are at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos is lightweight, flexible, and strong. It is the only naturally-occurring mineral that can be woven into cloth. Asbestos is also completely resistant to fire, is chemically inert, and provides very good insulation against both electricity and heat. Its properties have been known for centuries. Pottery containing asbestos that dates back to 3000 years BC has been found in Scandinavia. The ancient Greeks and Romans used asbestos extensively for clothing and for tablecloths that could be cleaned by throwing them in the fire. Asbestos linings were frequently put into suits of armor worn by knights during the Middle Ages. During its peak use in the United States, between World War II and the mid-1970s, asbestos was used in about 3000 different products. It could be found in everything from cement to insulation in hairdryers, and from roofing tiles to toasters.
Asbestos fibers separate easily, and when they are disturbed, they slough off tiny fibers of asbestos dust. This dust is too small to be seen without a microscope, but clumps together so at times people will see dust coming off an asbestos product. These clumps, which look like just specks of dust, actually contain thousands of asbestos fibers. When the asbestos dust separates from the main fiber it easily floats on the air. Any person in the area can then unknowingly breathe in the dust. When asbestos enters the human body it gets imbedded in the lungs or in the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the chest cavity, causing a number of different asbestos related illnesses such as asbestosis, pleural plaques, mesothelioma, lung cancer, and more.
Asbestos is also a carcinogen and has been associated with several different types of asbestos cancer, from lung cancer to gastrointestinal cancer. It also causes mesothelioma. Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer of the membrane that surrounds the lungs, heart, stomach, or other organs. Mesothelioma, like other asbestos-related diseases, has a lengthy latency period. Signs of the disease don’t usually show up for 20, 30 or more years after the asbestos exposure. The first symptom of mesothelioma is shortness of breath during exercise. This symptom is so nonspecific and mild that people rarely notice it at the onset. Over time the problem becomes worse until even at rest the mesothelioma sufferer can’t get a full breath of air and experiences severe chest pain.
If mesothelioma is caught in its earliest stages, doctors can sometimes remove the tumor and the surrounding tissue before the cancer metastasizes. Unfortunately, most people do not catch the disease in this early stage. By the time most people realize they have a health problem and seek medical attention, the cancer has spread. At this point, doctors have the person undergo chemotherapy and radiation, sometimes along with surgery, to try to slow the growth of the cancer. There is no cure for mesothelioma, and although there are now drugs specifically designed to fight mesothelioma as opposed to general anti-cancer drugs, the mortality rate is still very high. Few people live more than two years after being diagnosed with mesothelioma.