Freight and material handlers come in contact with just about everything that goes through shipyards, construction sites, shops, and warehouses. People working as freight and material handlers from the 1940s through about 1990 almost certainly had significant exposure to asbestos. As recently as 2001, the United States used 13,000 metric tons of asbestos in roofing products, gaskets, friction materials such as brake pads, and other products. Asbestos was used, and to a lesser extent is still used, as an insulator and fire retardant. During the peak years of its use more than 3000 products and uses had been identified from 1950 until 1980. Most of those products passed through the hands of freight and material handlers on their way to and from manufacturing.
Asbestos is a mineral that has been used for centuries because it is lightweight, flexible, insulates against both heat and electricity, and is entirely fire-resistant. The ancient Greeks and Romans used asbestos tablecloths and napkins because they could clean them by throwing them in the fire. The ancient Greeks also knew that asbestos was dangerous. Scholars in the first century wrote that slaves who worked with asbestos died young and had problems with their lungs. In modern times, studies were conducted during the 1930s that concluded that asbestos was potentially deadly. Nonetheless, asbestos use continued to rise through World War II and into the 1970s, when government regulation finally started imposing limits on where and how asbestos could be used.
The danger in asbestos comes from inhaling the dust it sloughs off when the fibers are disturbed. Asbestos dust is very fine and can be inhaled when it becomes airborne. When the dust enters the body it gets imbedded in the lungs and in the membrane surrounding the lungs and lining the chest cavity. Initially the only result of the asbestos dust entering the body is irritation of the tissue it comes in contact with. Eventually, however, the irritation turns to scar tissue and can interfere with the person’s ability to breathe, and the lung’s ability to inflate properly. This in turn can cause high blood pressure of the lungs, and ultimately even heart failure.
Asbestos is also a carcinogen and has been associated with several types of asbestos cancer including lung cancer and gastrointestinal cancers. It is also the cause of a rare cancer called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is cancer of the membrane surrounding the lungs. It can often take between 15 and 40 years or more for Mesothelioma to start after initial exposure to asbestos takes place. The first symptom of mesothelioma, shortness of breath during exercise, is so mild and can be caused by so many things that most people don’t recognize it as a danger signal that they have a serious illness. Eventually the cancer metastasizes and spreads throughout the body. At this point the person may notice a difficulty breathing even while at rest and chest pain. The more advanced the cancer becomes, the more serious the pain gets, and the harder it becomes to breathe.
If malignant mesothelioma is caught early, doctors can try to remove the tumor and the tissue surrounding it, so it can’t spread. Since the symptoms aren’t significant enough to draw most people to the doctor, however, it is rare to catch mesothelioma this early. More often it has already spread by the time a mesothelioma diagnosis is made. After mesothelioma has metastasized doctors can only try to slow its growth through the use of chemotherapy and radiation, sometimes in conjunction with surgery to reduce the size of tumors. Although medical treatments are advancing, there is still no cure for mesothelioma.