Asbestos Exposure as a Mesothelioma Risk Factor
According to the National Organization of Rare Diseases (NORD), asbestos exposure is “the major associated risk factor for mesothelioma.”
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that develops as a fibrous bundle. It forms in rocks and deposits throughout the world, and its flexibility, durability, and resistance to fire made asbestos a popular material for a wide range of products throughout the 20th century and even today.
Occupational Exposure Risks
Many American blue-collar workers faced an increased risk of exposure to asbestos on a daily basis, especially at the height of its use in the 20th century.
Occupations with high asbestos exposure risk include:
- Construction Workers: A huge number of construction materials were once made with asbestos. Construction workers, from drywall installers to tile setters to roofers and painters, likely handled asbestos on a daily basis as late as the 1990s.
- Firefighters: Older buildings often contain a lot of asbestos-containing materials, so when these buildings catch fire, dangerous asbestos particles are released into the air. Unfortunately, firefighters are often exposed to this asbestos dust while saving lives.
- Insulators: Insulators often needed to install or remove asbestos-based insulation from buildings. This close contact with disturbed asbestos fibers put them at higher than average risk of inhaling or ingesting asbestos particles.
- Plumbers: Pipes were once commonly wrapped in asbestos for insulation. Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters often removed this insulation as part of their job, leading to high rates of asbestos-related diseases.
- Shipbuilders: Both military personnel and civilians building ships in shipyards were at incredibly high risk of asbestos exposure, as the mineral was a popular insulation and fireproofing material on ships.
Many other individuals who do not fall into these groups are at higher risk of developing mesothelioma through occupational asbestos exposure.
Military Asbestos Exposure Risks
Sadly, United States veterans are at especially high risk for mesothelioma because of the military’s heavy use of the mineral from around 1935-1975.
While its flame-resistant properties and high durability helped protect military personnel, it also caused great harm. According to a medical study published in the journal Ultrastructural Pathology, veterans represent roughly a third of those diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Veterans may have been exposed to asbestos in:
- Navy ships
- Military bases and living quarters
While the U.S. military took great efforts to remove asbestos from their ships and other assets once its dangers became known, millions of veterans and their family members may have been exposed.
Our free Mesothelioma Justice Guide has detailed information about where victims may have been exposed to asbestos.
Asbestos Exposure Risk at Home
Asbestos is best known for its use in insulation, but it can also be found in roofing, machinery, and a wide range of industrial applications.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the use of asbestos was common in these materials to create buildings — including homes. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), since the mid-1970s, the United States dramatically decreased the amount of asbestos use in the country. However, many older homes still contain asbestos.
If undisturbed, asbestos in building materials should not cause harm. However, activities such as drilling and remodeling or natural wear and tear to a home may loosen fibers, causing them to be inhaled or ingested.
Individuals living in older homes may benefit from having a trained asbestos abatement professional test their home for asbestos fibers. They should never attempt to remove asbestos on their own.
Environmental Asbestos Exposure
While it is rare, some people may be exposed to asbestos in the natural environment.
Naturally-occurring asbestos deposits may be exposed through asbestos mining, putting individuals who live near the asbestos mine at risk when the mineral is disturbed and released into the air or brought home on clothing.
One example of environmental asbestos exposure was man-made. Since 1919, the residents of Libby, Montana, were poisoned by toxic asbestos dust from the vermiculite mines established there.
As reported by The Guardian, “the rate of lung disease in Libby is between 40 and 60 times the national average.”
While many cases of mesothelioma develop in miners and their immediate family members, many others occur in individuals merely living near areas where asbestos mining took place.
Asbestos Exposure Levels and Risk
People at the greatest risk of developing mesothelioma seem to be those who have been exposed to high levels of asbestos for significant periods of time.
However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “there is no ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber.’
Anyone who has been exposed to asbestos is at risk of developing mesothelioma. This risk does not appear to decrease over time, and asbestos exposure remains a risk factor long after the exposure has stopped.
However, most people exposed to asbestos do not develop mesothelioma.