Asbestos is a known carcinogen and causes mesothelioma, a deadly form of asbestos cancer. When people are exposed to asbestos they inhale some of the fibers. These fibers cause scarring of the lungs, as well as other health problems. Most people wouldn’t think of welders as working in the asbestos industry. What they don’t realize is that until the early 1980’s, welding rods, and the fumes that come off the rods during the welding process, contained asbestos dust that could be inhaled by the welder.
Testimony during the first successful trial establishing a link between welding rods and malignant mesothelioma and lung cancer established that the most commonly used welding rods were coated in a mixture that was between 5% and 15% asbestos. In July 2003, two workers who had developed mesothelioma and lung cancer from inhaling asbestos during their employment as welders won a jury verdict holding the welding industry liable for their injuries. The industry appealed, but in December 2005, the verdict was upheld.
The welding industry considers asbestos related injury lawsuits a serious threat. In the summer of 2004, an industry newsletter written by several defense attorneys explained how potential defendants in asbestos lawsuits should handle the threat. The advice included protecting industry assets by reorganizing their businesses, and doing everything possible to make sure the companies have full insurance coverage. Both of these actions appear to be acknowledgements of potential liability. One of the reasons for their concern is the number of people who were exposed to welding fumes. In 2003, there were an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 welders or retired welders living in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of other people were potentially exposed to the fumes as bystanders, or laborers working near welding operations. In addition to the fumes, the fire risk associated with welding and the sparks it produces often created an environment in which asbestos blankets or gloves were used to prevent fires from starting.
Although today regulations are in place to help protect workers from asbestos exposure, many buildings and products still contain asbestos. When welders work on surfaces that are covered with asbestos, the risk of exposure still exists. This is why it is so important for welders to work in well-ventilated areas, and to use good quality ventilators when working with asbestos. Unfortunately, mistakes still happen. As recently as July 31, 2007 an asbestos removal school in Queens, New York was shut down for teaching unsafe asbestos handling methods, and for helping its students cheat on state certification exams.
The federal government is currently looking at a bill that would ban asbestos in the United States. First introduced in June of 2002, the bill was referred to committee where it had stalled for some time. Finally on July 31, 2007 the bill unanimously passed in committee, and will be addressed by the Senate during the fall of 2007. If the bill becomes law, asbestos-containing products would no longer be available for sale in the United States within two years. The bill would create a $50 million research and treatment program to search for a cure to asbestos related diseases. It would create a registry for people suffering from a mesothelioma diagnosis so researchers could track their cases and provide information that may help in their care and treatment. The Environmental Protection Agency would begin a public information campaign to educate the public about the asbestos dangers that still face the American public, and blue-collar workers in particular.