Thursday, May 10, 2007

Who Is Exposed?

Exposure to asbestos is much more common than believed. However, certain industries and workers are much more likely to be occupationally exposed to asbestos.

Due to its properties of heat resistance and impermeability, asbestos use tended to focus heavily in the mechanical, construction and ship building industries. The construction business has the largest number of trades involved with past exposure or current exposure to legacy asbestos. These include the following trades: plumbers, electricians, roofers, pipe fitters, sheet metal workers, masons, carpenters, drywallers, painters, tile setters, plasterers, insulators, joiners and common laborers.

The shipbuilding industry and the navy, which used the ships, are where most military personnel were exposed. Trades here include: steamfitters, ironworkers, welders, boilermakers, ship fitters, machinists, electricians, millwrights and operating engineers.

The above is hardly an exhaustive list and effectively illustrates the scale of the problem. Hardest to accept is the fact that no level of exposure is deemed safe when dealing with asbestos and consequently a significant cadre of patients has appeared in the category of secondary or stealth exposure. Examples here are family members of asbestos workers, who were exposed through contact with contaminated clothing or tools brought home from work. The general laborer category fails to adequately identify those casual, summer, or part-time workers who assisted the principal trades. They would be cleaning up work sites, removing debris or doing light, unskilled labor in a contaminated environment. This often took place without adequate or even any protective equipment.

A substantial number of white collar workers who work in contaminated office spaces, schools or businesses have also developed mesothelioma. This group includes teachers and other office workers not associated with industrial or work-related asbestos exposure.

The stealth element comes from the lack of understanding of where and why asbestos was used in construction. Many of the buildings containing asbestos remain standing today. Since 2000, many cases of stealth exposure have been in the news. As an example, school workers in Texas were exposed while re-glazing school windows where asbestos laced putty had been used. In this case, not only the workers but students and teachers using those class rooms were exposed to asbestos dust and debris without any protection whatsoever.

New sources of exposure are being identified constantly, such as environmental exposure. In certain areas of the world, asbestos occurs naturally and can be found on the surface where it is easily disturbed. Examples of problems are the growing expansion of the population and new housing development that has followed. Sometimes this has encroached upon heavily asbestos contaminated soils, potentially exposing the future residents to long term, low level amounts of asbestos.

The tainted vermiculite problem is another issue where millions of homes have been insulated with vermiculite filler that will release asbestos when disturbed. Home renovations, new wiring or furnace repairs may all cause unwitting workers to release clouds of asbestos dust that will expose both themselves and the building occupants to danger.

In summary, not only blue collar trades are at risk from asbestos induced mesothelioma. Many people in "safe" occupations and individuals who do not believe themselves to be at risk may well be on track to developing this tumor in the future. Even once asbestos is someday banned in the U.S., all the individuals who have already been exposed, and all those who will continue to be exposed to the asbestos already present in our environment, will remain at risk for mesothelioma’s suffering and death unless effective treatments are developed now.