Electrical line and cable men came into contact with asbestos regularly before the mid-1970s because it was used as an insulator for the electric lines. The U.S. military has recognized that for electrical power lineman and cable men, if they come across any form of insulation on electrical wiring that is not marked as being asbestos-free, they should assume it does contain asbestos. Areas in which people in these professions might expect to encounter asbestos include insulation, underground manholes, under houses or other structures, crawl spaces, old electrical equipment, fire-retardant tape, duct banks, arc shields, cables and electrical wiring.
The military has established requirements for a person to be qualified to work with asbestos that include training in how to minimize exposure when it is encountered and how to recognize asbestos in a work environment. In recognition of the serious health consequences of asbestos exposure, such as the development of diseases like asbestosis and mesothelioma, military safety guidelines indicate that at no time should friable asbestos-containing materials be bumped, touched, or manipulated in any way.
There are several steps that may be taken by electrical lineman and cable men to reduce their chance of inadvertent exposure to asbestos. Anytime they encounter an unknown material they should request that it be tested for asbestos before they do any work that might impact the substance in any way. They should wear disposable overalls to prevent asbestos fibers from getting on their clothing where they could be accidentally transported from the site into the worker’s car or home. Electrical linemen and cable men should wear respirators any time they must work with an untested substance, and they should meticulously wash their hands prior to eating or drinking.
The concerns expressed by the military are very real. Asbestos is a mineral that forms as fibers. When the fibers are disturbed small pieces of asbestos are released into the air. These fibers can then be inhaled by anyone in the immediate vicinity. The fibers may also be swallowed, although contamination by ingestion is far less common than inhalation.
Asbestos in the lungs causes scarring that can turn cancerous. It is also a known carcinogen separate from the scar tissue it causes. Malignant mesothelioma is a form of asbestos cancer caused by asbestos that takes several decades to develop. The early symptoms of mesothelioma, namely shortness of breath, may be so subtle that they go unnoticed. As the symptoms get worse, difficulty breathing while at rest, chest pain, and clubbing of the fingers, people may finally seek medical attention for a problem they previously ignored, or discounted as a matter of aging or being out of shape.
If discovered before it has spread, doctors may be able to remove just the tumor or the tumor and surrounding tissue and prevent the cancer from spreading. If it has already spread through the body, however, surgery is more a treatment for symptoms than a realistic attempt at removing the cancer. In the later stages there is little doctors can do other than treat the symptoms of mesothelioma and try to slow its growth with the use of chemotherapy and radiation. There is no known cure for mesothelioma, and few people live more than two years after the initial diagnosis.
Since the consequences of not discovering mesothelioma until it has reached an advanced stage are so devastating, anyone who has had exposure to asbestos, as most electrical linemen and cable men have, should get regular physical exams to ensure that they don’t have cancerous cells that they aren’t developed far enough to have significant symptoms. The difference in early discovery can truly be the difference between life and death.