There is only one primary risk factor relating to the development of mesothelioma and that is asbestos exposure. The only known cause for mesothelioma cancer is asbestos. Specifically, tiny asbestos fibers that can float in a cloud of dust break off from asbestos products that are being torn or cut, or that are deteriorating. They can then be inhaled by any person passing by or can end up on dusty clothes and carried home where family members can inhale or ingest them. During the heyday of asbestos industrial products, millions of workers were exposed to asbestos on the job.
Mesothelioma Risks on the Job
Thirty years ago or more, mesothelioma risk factors included working in shipyards, in the merchant marine, working in an oil refinery, a power plant, an auto plant, a chemical plant, a refractory or any other industry that used heat as part of the manufacturing process. Asbestos insulation was used for the boilers that drove heating plants in buildings and for the pipes that carried hot water through the buildings. HVAC systems were insulated in the same way, with blankets or sheets of asbestos fabric that served as insulation material. When it deteriorated or was torn, asbestos fibers were released into the air.
Power plants, oil refineries and petrochemical plants all used tons of asbestos insulation. The pumps used in hundreds of industrial applications had asbestos packing for the bearings and asbestos gaskets to close up seals. The mesothelioma risk factor for workers in these facilities related directly to the condition of the asbestos insulation or machine parts or floor tiles or roofing or any one of thousands of asbestos products. Brake shoes and pads have always contained asbestos and given off asbestos fibers in that fine powder you see on your wheels after your brakes have been replaced. Millions of Americans have been exposed to asbestos on the job since the 1940s, including the thousands who participated in rescue and recovery.
Mesothelioma Risk Factors in the Navy
A disproportionate number of Americans who have asbestos related diseases today served on Navy vessels during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Every Navy vessel commissioned between about 1930 and 1970 had asbestos insulation all over the engine room and throughout the pipe system on board the ship. Asbestos material was used for fire doors and in walls that were meant to contain fires onboard ship.
Today the Navy vessels are free of asbestos, for the most part, but older buildings on military bases still have asbestos floor tiles, roofing and insulation and today's military personnel are still being exposed to old and deteriorating asbestos products. Many of the Navy veterans and shipyard workers that are filing asbestos lawsuits today are filing them against pump manufacturers as well as the companies that supplied asbestos insulation for ships, engine rooms and boilers. Thirty percent of all mesothelioma victims are military veterans.
Mesothelioma Risk Factors at Home
Millions of homes were built with asbestos roofing, asbestos insulation and flooring containing asbestos over the first eighty years of the 20th Century. Today owners of those houses who are remodeling or redesigning are often confronted with old asbestos insulation in the walls, covering boilers or pipes for old heating systems, and facing worn out roofs that have asbestos shingles and asbestos paper beneath the shingles.
Asbestos flooring was a standard feature from the 1940s through the 1980s in the form of linoleum and other vinyl flooring including flooring tiles. The adhesive material used to lay this flooring material down contained asbestos. Home siding was often manufactured with asbestos used as a bonding agent, just as it was used in cement to provide strength.
Asbestos that isn't exposed to people and that is left alone is relatively harmless. For that reason old asbestos insulation is often just left in walls. That's not a choice when a floor or a roof needs replacing, however. The homeowner needs to call in a licensed asbestos abatement contractor who will have the proper equipment to protect his employees, the residents of the house and who will know what the disposal regulations are. Do-it-yourselfers who are removing old flooring or patching walls are in danger of inhaling asbestos fibers if they sand down old adhesive, old wall joint compound, or old adhesives used for wall mountings or roofing materials. Insulation on old heating systems can be particularly prone to tear and give off asbestos-laden dust. The sources of exposure are many, as are the methods to manage them.
Asbestos Jobsite Risks Today
It is estimated that 1.3 million American workers still face asbestos exposure on the job. Most of that exposure occurs during demolition or remodeling work with older structures. There are still tens of millions of homes and commercial buildings in this country that contain asbestos insulation, roofing or other products. Brake shoes and clutches are still being manufactured with asbestos; workers in these shops use special equipment to avoid contamination and the spread of dust. Asbestos exposure, like asbestos disease, is going to fade away gradually over a long period of time.
- Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk, National Cancer Institute, http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/asbestos
- Asbestos in Your Home, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/ashome.html
- Asbestos Health and Safety, Occupational Health & Safety Administration, http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/