During the mid-20th Century, the use of asbestos as a component of various building and industrial products and equipment was widespread – some would even say ubiquitous. Asbestos, which is actually the collective term for several naturally occurring mineral fibers, has been highly regarded for its extreme resistance to fire and heat, its lightweight nature and strength, and the fact that it does not conduct electricity. Because of these useful qualities, asbestos was added to fabrics, yarn, plastics, cement and concrete mixes, insulating materials, and a host of other products which would be used in high-heat environments.
One such environment is a chemical plant. Chemical plants, which manufacture and process chemicals on an industrial scale, are often hazardous work environments due to the risk of chemical reactions that may cause explosions or fire. Asbestos, which is also resistant to chemical reactions and changes, is often seen in chemical plants, either in the boilers, furnaces, heat exchangers, pipes, dryers, ovens and extruders, or in the protective gear, clothing and equipment that chemical plant workers use to keep themselves and their environment safe.
Unfortunately, however, asbestos is a known carcinogen, because it is made up of microscopic yet needle-like fibers which can be inhaled and then penetrate the body’s soft tissues. Particularly vulnerable is the mesothelium, a protective sheath which surrounds the internal organs and lines the body cavities. This membrane, which allows the organs to move by producing a special lubricating fluid, becomes aggravated by the presence of the asbestos fibers and eventually a malignancy may form. Malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive and rare cancer, can be the result. Even former chemical workers who are currently retired may still remain at risk to develop mesothelioma, because of the disease’s peculiar latency period. It can take up to five decades for the disease to become symptomatic, although it is developing within the body. When it is eventually diagnosed, most often the mesothelioma has reached a later stage, which makes treatment difficult and impractical. Individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma usually may not live beyond 18 months following diagnosis, although research into more effective treatments is ongoing. If you, or someone you love, have been an employee in a chemical plant, particularly one that was built before the 1980s, there may have been asbestos on the premises, and therefore you may be at risk to be diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma. Consult with your health care practitioner in order to begin the screening process.