Locomotive engineers are the people who drive trains from one station to the next. It is a job that requires knowledge of the trains, basic mechanical ability in making minor adjustments on the trains, and an ability to communicate with conductors and railroad personnel concerning railroad regulations, safety measures, signaling systems, and emergencies that may arise along the tracks. There is a good deal of knowledge about physics that also comes into play for locomotive engineers since trains behave differently depending on how heavy they are, the grade of the track, and other external conditions.
Although it is not common knowledge, trains up until the late 1960s and early 1970s had a lot of asbestos insulation used in boilers, locomotives, and other railroad equipment. Steam locomotives that were used through the 1950s had asbestos insulation not only on the outside under a metal coating, but also almost fully lining the engine cab. Asbestos also covered the boiler, firebox and any heated pipes or ducts on steam locomotives. Most trains also had cabooses through the 1970s. The heater and associated piping in the caboose had asbestos insulation, and most of the ceilings were made from asbestos materials. Diesel locomotives also had a lot of asbestos gaskets that weren’t changed out until the 1990s. OSHA has found that even one gasket can release enough asbestos dust into the air to be above safe levels. Also, continuing into the 1990s, asbestos linings were used in the brakes of trains. Shops, offices, and railway company hotels all had asbestos insulation and were not made safer until the 1970s and 1980s. Any locomotive engineer during the time prior to 1990 who spent his career around trains and rail yards had enough exposure to asbestos to make him at higher risk for asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that breaks apart easily when the fibers are disturbed. Asbestos dust is very fine and can only be seen under a microscope. When it gets into the body, mostly through inhalation, but also to a lesser extent from ingestion, it causes irritation and scarring. Most asbestos diseases have a latency period of 15 – 40 years. Since many locomotive engineers aren’t aware of the dangers of their job there is such a long period between exposure and development of disease, many don’t make the connection as to the cause of their health problems.
The most serious of the asbestos-related diseases is malignant mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a form of asbestos cancer that, in its most common form of pleural mesothelioma, surrounds the lungs and lines the chest cavity. Its first symptom is shortness of breath while exercising. This is a nonspecific symptom that most people don’t even notice. Later, as the cancer grows, the lack of breath becomes more pronounced until the person can’t even get a full breath of air while sitting at rest. The later stages are also accompanied by increasing chest pain. If mesothelioma is detected early enough, it can be surgically removed along with surrounding tissue. It is rare, however, for such early diagnosis to occur. Usually the symptoms don’t become significant enough to warrant medical attention until the cancer has already metastasized. In these later stages, surgery alone is not effective against mesothelioma. Rather, doctors use a combination of chemotherapy and radiation to try to slow the tumors’ growth. There is no cure for mesothelioma, and it is highly resistant to most anti-cancer drugs. The average person diagnosed with mesothelioma does not live more than two years after the time the cancer is first discovered.