Mr. H was a mechanical engineer for seven years during the 1960s working for Halliburton in their steel plants. In May 2000 he was diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of on-the-job asbestos exposure. He was only 58 years old. Mr. Z was a mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry. He was exposed to asbestos from his father’s clothing when he was young, and exposed through his own job as an adult. His diagnosis followed a routine exam, but it was not immediately recognized as mesothelioma. Most malignant mesothelioma victims live less than two years after diagnosis.
Mechanical engineering is the design, analysis, testing, and production of products. Mechanical engineers traditionally worked in chemical, aerospace, and automotive industries among others, and are now working in bioengineering and environmental fields in addition to the traditional mechanical engineering fields. Among other things, mechanical engineering involves work in electrical circuitry, thermodynamics and heat transfer.
These areas of work brought mechanical engineers into contact with vast amounts of asbestos during the height of asbestos use between 1940 and the late 1970s. During that time asbestos was used in over 3000 different products. Asbestos is still used for some products, primarily brake pad linings and gaskets, in the United States, and there is asbestos in older products that people come in contact with meaning the risk of exposure still exists. Asbestos has some unique properties that made it a valuable resource for hundreds of years. Asbestos is chemically inert, entirely fireproof, and insulates extremely well against both heat and electricity. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians used asbestos, as did the Romans. It was first mined and processed in the United States during the early 1900s.
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that breaks apart easily. When the fibers separate, and any other time the fibers are manipulated in some way, they slough off microscopic pieces of asbestos dust. This dust is very lightweight and remains airborne for a long time. Anyone nearby can then inhale the fibers. When the asbestos dust enters the body it gets imbedded in the lungs and in the membrane surrounding the lungs and lining the chest cavity. Once in the body asbestos causes a lot of different medical problems, including asbestos cancer since it is a carcinogen. The worst form of cancer caused by asbestos is malignant mesothelioma. This is a cancer that primarily attacks the tissue surrounding the lungs in its most common form – pleural mesothelioma – although it can also affect the stomach, heart, testicles, and other parts of the body in its more rare instances.
Mesothelioma, like most asbestos-related diseases, has a long latency period. It usually does not show up for several decades after exposure to asbestos. The first sign of mesothelioma is shortness of breath while exercising. The problem is generally so mild that people either don’t notice it at all, or ignore it. Over time the symptoms get worse until eventually the mesothelioma sufferer can’t breathe even while at rest and has terrible chest pain. If it is detected early enough, doctors can surgically remove the tumor and surrounding tissue and prevent its growth. If the cancer has already metastasized, surgery is not as effective since removing all of the cancer after it has spread is virtually impossible. After the cancer has spread doctors usually rely on a combination of chemotherapy and radiation to slow mesothelioma tumor growth. New medicines and technology are improving the prognosis for mesothelioma patients, but there is still no cure.