Steel plants like Chicago Heights Steel were historically high risk sites for asbestos exposure until its use was largely banned in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1989. In a steel mill like Chicago Heights Steel, asbestos could have been used in steam pipes, furnaces, and heat-resistant protective clothing such as gloves, aprons and hats.
Asbestos is a term that refers to a group of six naturally occurring minerals. Asbestos can be mined and found naturally in the soil. It was widely used in industry because of its versatile characteristics: it has cloth-like qualities but is also resistant to heat and fire.
Records show that a total of 60,624 tons of asbestos were shipped to Chicago and 372,775 tons were shipped to Illinois before the early 1990’s. Asbestos was used widely across industries from the early 1800’s until the late twentieth century. Its use continues today, although it is more highly regulated in the United States. There is ample documentation that many industries and employers knew about the risks of asbestos exposure for decades and withheld this information from employees. It is estimated that 27 million people were exposed to asbestos in the United States before the 1989 Environmental Protection Agency ban. Those who were exposed to the greatest amounts of asbestos tend to be individuals who worked in trades and facilities in which asbestos was commonly used, such as steel plants and ship building facilities.
Asbestos exposure can lead to a number of respiratory conditions including lung cancer, mesothelioma (a rare form of asbestos cancer), asbestosis (A form of scaring of the lungs), and pleural effusions. The most serious of these conditions is malignant mesothelioma, a rare and almost always fatal form of cancer. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium, a membrane which covers most of the body’s internal organs, including the lungs and heart. Working in a steel plant is considered a high risk for contracting mesothelioma later in life.
According to the American Cancer Society, once exposure to asbestos occurs, an individual is at risk for the rest of his or her life. It may take anywhere from 15 to 50 years after the initial exposure for an individual to begin showing symptoms of a health complication. Common mesothelioma symptoms of conditions caused by exposure include shortness of breath, fatigue, and coughing up blood. There are also documented cases of secondary or limited exposure to asbestos causing health problems. Secondary exposure occurs when a person who was directly exposed carries asbestos fibers with them into a new environment (such as on clothes) and others are exposed. There have been cases of family members of exposed workers developing health problem.
In some cases, workers have sought damages from employers who knowingly exposed employees to risk without providing proper safety equipment or education.