A Tragic Legacy: the Risk of Mesothelioma to Blue-Collar Workers

The United States was founded on principles of initiative, honesty and hard work. No one embodies those ideals more than the men and women who labor each day in the nation’s steel mills, factories, shipyards, power plants and oil refineries. These blue-collar workers leave the job site at the end of every shift with not only another day’s wages and the satisfaction of a job well done, but also—tragically—with an elevated risk for a peculiar cancer called mesothelioma.

The reason for this is asbestos, the insulating and building material which was nearly ubiquitous on many job sites throughout the 20th Century. Used to protect workers from high heat and fire, asbestos may actually have poisoned those who labored around it, which includes most blue-collar workers. Miners, millers, construction workers, electricians and plumbers all have a greater-than-average risk of asbestos exposure, which is the primary cause of mesothelioma cancer.

When asbestos’s microscopic fibers are inhaled, they penetrate the tissues surrounding the lungs called the mesothelium, and cause the mesothelial cells to behave erratically. Malignant pleural mesothelioma can result, but may not become symptomatic until decades after the exposure. In other words, the cancer can develop extensively without the worker’s knowledge. Too often, by the time the diagnosis is made, the mesothelioma has already advanced to a later stage. Surgery to remove the tumor is not feasible except in the early stages of the cancer, and other forms of treatment are not usually very effective. All of these factors—its occupational origin, its long latency period, and its aggressive nature—combine to make mesothelioma a particularly devastating disease.

Most of mesothelioma’s victims are male, due to the traditionally male milieu of the job sites that were contaminated with asbestos, and over the age of 50. Approximately 3,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States, and the prognosis is grim—on average, a mesothelioma patient lives less than two years after learning that they have the disease.

The best odds for successfully treating mesothelioma, as with most cancers, occur with early detection. Therefore, it’s imperative that any blue-collar worker who may have worked with or around asbestos, particularly in the years between 1930 and 1980, make his or her doctor aware of the potential exposure and carefully monitor any symptoms that may point to mesothelioma, including persistent cough, fatigue, wheezing or hoarseness, chest or back pain, and breathing difficulties.