Insulation work is — and has been for decades — a common trade for many Americans. It’s also one of the most susceptible to developing mesothelioma.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor, there were 58,000 insulation workers in the U.S. as of 2018. Even back in the 20th century, thousands of Americans worked as insulators, whether installing, repairing or removing the substance from homes, businesses and other buildings.
Those Americans regularly handled asbestos, a dangerous mineral that is the only known cause of mesothelioma. They could have inhaled or ingested loose, microscopic asbestos fibers without knowing.
Asbestos exposure among insulation workers remains a problem, even well into the 21st century. All people in this trade should be aware of why mesothelioma is connected to this trade.
How Did Asbestos Contaminate Insulation?
Asbestos can co-habitate the earth with vermiculite, which is likewise a naturally forming mineral. When heated, vermiculite expands rather than burns. Insulation companies used vermiculite for its expansion and fire-resistant properties.
Since asbestos and vermiculite exist near one another, they can mix together. Most vermiculite insulation originated from the mine in Libby, Montana. This mine, which was active until 1990, also included asbestos.
Asbestos-tainted vermiculite insulation is also called loose-fill insulation. The website The Spruce, which is tailored for homeowners, describes loose-fill insulation as loose, lumpy and granular.
For much of the 20th century, the relationship between asbestos and vermiculite was unknown. Even after its discovery, the connection was an afterthought for many of the vermiculite manufacturers and insulation companies. Meanwhile, insulation workers were being exposed daily to dangerous asbestos and placed in certain danger.
How Does Asbestos in Insulation Cause Mesothelioma?
Asbestos in insulation causes mesothelioma the same as it does for other products. Since vermiculite insulation can contain this toxin, loose fibers can break off from the insulation material and enter the oxygen.
Asbestos is flaky and easily disturbed. While not dangerous when whole, asbestos particles can flake off with the slightest touch or movement around them.
These loose fibers enter the air undetected and can be inhaled or ingested. If the body does not clear out the particles, then they can irritate healthy cells and turn them into cancer.
While mesothelioma can originate in multiple areas, two are most common. Pleural mesothelioma forms in the thin lining between the chest wall and lung cavity. Peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the tight space that wraps around the abdominal cavity.
Which Type of Mesothelioma Do Insulation Workers Get?
Insulation workers can get any type of mesothelioma, but the less-common type surprisingly seems more prevalent.
In 1990, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 278 “definite or suspected” mesothelioma cases among the 17,800 insulation workers in the United States and Canada.
Surprisingly, most of the cases (160) were peritoneal mesothelioma despite it accounting for only around 20% of all mesothelioma diagnoses. Pleural mesothelioma, which accounts for 80% of mesothelioma cases, comprised 97 of the diagnoses in this study.
The link between peritoneal mesothelioma and insulation workers appears in another study. Around 17,800 insulation workers from the U.S. and Canada enrolled in a study back in 1967.
Among them, 356 died of mesothelioma by 1984. Peritoneal mesothelioma accounted for 222 of the deaths, and pleural mesothelioma caused 134 of them. Again, peritoneal mesothelioma was more common.
Exposure Risk Still Exists for Insulation Workers
In the CDC study, approximately half of the insulation workers with mesothelioma had latency periods between 30 and 39 years. Latency period is the amount of time between exposure to asbestos and disease diagnosis.
Mesothelioma has a longer latency period than most cancers, and this characteristic is why early detection is difficult. Most people don’t anticipate getting mesothelioma because the cause of their disease happened so long ago.
Former insulation workers from the 1980s could’ve just recently developed mesothelioma — or they might not for a few more years. Additionally, current workers face a risk of exposure if they work on old homes built with vermiculite insulation.
“The Libby mine was closed in 1990, but not before contaminated vermiculite insulation made its way into millions of homes and buildings,” the website Today’s Homeowner states. “The problem is so widespread that the (Environmental Protection Agency) recommends that all vermiculite insulation should be assumed to be contaminated with asbestos.”
If you are or ever were an insulation worker and have mesothelioma, there’s likely a connection. Our staff at Mesothelioma Guide regularly helps insulation workers who develop this cancer. You can email our patient advocate and registered nurse, Jenna Campagna, at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any other questions.
Show Sources & Author
- How to Identify Dangerous Asbestos Insulation. The Spruce. Retrieved from:
https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-identify-dangerous-asbestos-insulation-4119906. Accessed: 03/04/2020.
- Dangers of Asbestos-Contaminated Vermiculite Insulation in Your Home. Today’s Homeowner. Retrieved from: https://todayshomeowner.com/dangers-of-asbestos-contaminated-vermiculite-insulation-in-your-home/. Accessed: 03/04/2020.
- Pathology of malignant mesothelioma among asbestos insulation workers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from:
https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/nioshtic-2/00198428.html. Accessed: 03/04/2020.
- Malignant mesothelioma in a cohort of asbestos insulation workers: clinical presentation, diagnosis, and causes of death. British Journal of Industrial Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1007965/. Accessed: 03/04/2020.