When commercial use of asbestos peaked in the 20th century, construction was arguably the industry relying the most on the mineral.
Asbestos is fire-resistant, durable and strong, a trifecta of useful qualities in this occupation. The substance is also deadly, and its appeal to the construction industry is why so many workers developed mesothelioma, an aggressive yet preventable cancer that develops when people inhale or swallow loose asbestos fibers.
How Asbestos Was Used in Construction
Think of nearly any component of constructing a building, and there’s a good chance asbestos is associated with it.
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.
How Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma
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. Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, listed this occupation as one of the most at risk for mesothelioma. In one Italian study, more than 25% of the 952 analyzed mesothelioma cases involved 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.
Renovating or Demolishing Old Buildings
Despite the drop in asbestos’ use during the 1980s, construction workers in the 1990s, 2000s and even in this decade were at risk of asbestos exposure and mesothelioma.
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. Demolishing an old building will certainly disturb any asbestos present and send many loose fibers into the air.
Regardless of how a construction worker is exposed to asbestos, they’re at risk of developing mesothelioma. These hard-working Americans were manipulated by the manufacturers of asbestos, and they should be compensated.
The scientists in the aforementioned Italian study even asserted this fact in their article. “All mesotheliomas occurring among construction workers should be granted compensation for occupational disease,” the report states.
If you are or were a construction worker and developed mesothelioma, you should contact our team. Your cancer was preventable, and these companies should be held accountable. Email either of our patient advocates — Karen Ritter, RN (email@example.com) or Carl Jewett (firstname.lastname@example.org) — for legal help, treatment advice or more information about how construction work causes this disease.
- What Are the Most Common Occupations at Risk for Mesothelioma?. Moffitt Cancer Center. Retrieved from: https://moffitt.org/. Accessed: 12/23/19.
- How asbestos makes people sick. ZME Science. Retrieved from: https://www.zmescience.com/science/how-asbestos-makes-people-sick/. Accessed: 12/23/19.
- Mesothelioma in construction workers: risk estimate, lung content of asbestos fibres, claims for compensation for occupational disease in the Veneto Region mesothelioma register. La Medicina Del Lavoro. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19382522. Accessed: 12/27/19.
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