Every day, if you leave the house, you’ll probably see people working on construction jobs. It could be a house, office building, skyscraper, or a public service like road or a highway. Construction work is an important part of American life – either working in this industry or witnessing it as a bystander.
Construction work is also linked to a deadly and rare cancer called mesothelioma. This cancer is caused by exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that has a lot of uses in construction work.
For decades, construction workers were exposed every day to asbestos. For this reason, many people who later developed mesothelioma were former construction workers.
The deadly mineral remains a hazard due to “legacy asbestos” existing in old homes and office buildings, which go through renovations. Legacy asbestos can expose today’s construction workers and continue the cycle of mesothelioma cancer.
Asbestos in Construction Work: How Construction Workers Were Exposed
Think of nearly any component of constructing a building or even a road or highway, and there’s a good chance asbestos was used – at least until the 1980s. During the end of the 20th century, the public learned asbestos was dangerous and most industries found alternatives. However, for 80% of the century, asbestos was thought of as a harmless hero element to building houses in the industrial age.
The mineral’s durability and strength made it an ideal component of roof shingles, wallboards, siding, sheetrock, floor tiles, bricks, drywall joint compounds and more. As a fire-resistant substance, asbestos was used for steel beams and columns in multistory buildings, plus cement in pipes and fireplaces. Household appliances, such as toasters and baking ovens, also included asbestos to protect from fires.
All of these uses protected buildings, both commercial and residential, from fire damage and quick degradation. However, the construction workers who handled asbestos were not protected.
Rates of Mesothelioma Among Construction Workers
Construction workers rank high on the list of occupations leading to mesothelioma. In fact, it’s considered the top occupation excluding work in the military or building ships.
Researchers at Georgetown University and Duke University compiled a list of the top occupations linked to mesothelioma cases. They found 1,445 total cases linked to occupational asbestos exposure, and construction workers were third on the list behind shipbuilders and U.S. Navy veterans. There were 134 documented cases of mesothelioma where the patient was a construction worker many years before their diagnosis.
Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, listed this occupation as one of the most at risk for mesothelioma. In one study conducted among workers in Italy, more than 25% of the 952 analyzed mesothelioma cases involved construction workers.
How Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma for Construction Workers
Asbestos has a flaky texture. Tiny, unseen-to-the-naked-eye fibers can break off and enter the air, contaminating the oxygen that enters your body. These fragments are sharp, and their pointed edges are like razor blades for the tissue near your lungs, abdomen and heart.
Once inhaled or swallowed, these asbestos fibers often travel to one of three thin membranes:
- The pleura (which separates the lung cavity and chest wall)
- The peritoneum (covers the abdominal cavity)
- The pericardium (lines the heart)
Reaching one of these areas is how mesothelioma forms, and it’s quite common among construction workers.
Simply touching asbestos with your fingernails could disturb the substance and cause fibers to break away and enter the air. Considering how prevalent asbestos was in construction materials, this interaction was common for decades.
Most, if not all, construction workers knew nothing about these dangers, though. The scientific connection between asbestos and cancer was hidden from them by the manufacturing companies that wished to continue making millions from selling the product.
Toward the end of the 20th century, the general public learned that asbestos was dangerous. This knowledge led to reduced use of asbestos in construction jobs, which one would think meant that the risk was eliminated. However, that is a common misconception.
Long Latency Period of Mesothelioma
When asbestos fibers enter one of the three membranes mentioned earlier, they can lodge into and irritate the cells on either lining. This irritation can cause cellular mutation, which involves unchecked duplication and the formation of mesothelioma tumors.
However, this process doesn’t happen immediately. In fact, it usually takes 20-50 years. This length of time is called the “latency period,” and it being so long is why so many construction workers struggle to link their disease to their occupation.
This long latency period is why retired construction workers are still receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis. Their work in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s likely involves asbestos use. Nevertheless, their disease didn’t materialize noticeably until decades later.
Legacy Asbestos for Construction Workers Today
Despite the drop in asbestos’ use during the 1980s, construction workers in the 1990s, 2000s and even in this decade are at risk of mesothelioma. The reason is “legacy asbestos.”
Legacy asbestos refers to uses of asbestos from the 20th century that have not been removed or replaced. Old homes and office buildings likely have asbestos mixtures hiding in walls, floorboards, ceiling tiles, roof shingles, appliances, electrical sockets, insulation and more. Any renovations or construction work may reveal these asbestos mixtures and disturb the frail fragments, which can contaminate the air and put workers at risk.
Any renovation or demolition projects could expose construction workers to the deadly mineral. For instance, remodeling an old home often could involve replacing roof shingles, drywall, sheetrock and other construction aspects that likely used asbestos. Knocking down a wall will certainly disturb any asbestos present and send many loose fibers into the air. Demolishing an old building will do the same.
Regardless of how a construction worker is exposed to asbestos, they’re at risk of developing mesothelioma.
Sources & Author
- Malignant Mesothelioma and Occupational Exposure to Asbestos: an Analysis of 1445 Cases. British Occupational Hygiene Society. Retrieved from: https://watermark.silverchair.com/46-suppl_1-150.pdf. Accessed: 08/11/2020.
Sources & Author