Updated by: Camryn Keeble on January 11, 2023

For nearly an entire century, asbestos was overused for anything and everything related to construction and maintenance. Anyone who worked in these occupations was likely exposed to this deadly substance and could be at risk for developing mesothelioma or other types of asbestos disease.  

Plumbers and pipefitters, two of the most common trades in the United States, are included in the high-risk occupation category. 

During its peak, asbestos was considered a “magic mineral” and repeatedly touted for its benefits. The general public assumed it was not harmful because they had no reason to believe otherwise. Workers, who were regularly exposed to asbestos in their work environment, also believed the mineral was safe as they were not provided with safety guidelines or protective equipment when in the presence of asbestos. 

Inevitably, the health risks associated with asbestos came to light: It is the only known cause of mesothelioma and can lead to other serious health problems. The overuse of asbestos in the 20th century has led to countless plumbers and pipefitters being diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases.


Why Was Asbestos Used in Plumbing and Pipefitting?

As previously stated, asbestos was used in nearly every aspect of construction – from buildings to ships and cars. The “magic mineral” was durable and could prevent early decay.

Asbestos has many appealing qualities. It’s cheap, for starters, but it’s also resistant to fire, heat and water. Therefore, it could shield nearly all building components from these potentially harmful elements. Asbestos was commonly used in many elements, such as: 

  • Floor and ceiling tiles
  • Insulation
  • Electric wiring and sockets
  • Pipe cement
  • Shingles
  • Siding
  • Drywall
  • Joint compound
  • Ordinary household appliances (toasters, ovens, mitts and more)

All of these building components could contribute to asbestos in plumbing and the risk it poses for plumbers and pipefitters.


How Plumbers and Pipefitters Were Exposed to Asbestos

Asbestos is present in homes, offices, entertainment venues, schools and more. It’s built into the walls, sealed in the floors, covered by the ceilings and more. There’s a long list of asbestos-contaminated elements — and an even longer list of trades affected by occupational asbestos exposure.

Plumbers and pipefitters are near the top — two occupations with high rates of exposure and strong links to mesothelioma.

While both occupations have a significant risk, they do perform different jobs. Plumbers install and repair pipes, which includes removing clogs from pipes, fixing water heaters, and installing and fixing toilets. Pipefitters handle pipes designed to collaborate with high-pressure materials, such as chemicals, acids or steam.

To reach these pipes, plumbers and pipefitters often handled or removed asbestos-containing components and unknowingly sent toxic asbestos fibers into the air by: 

  • Tearing down walls or ripping up flooring to assess an issue
  • Maneuvering through electrical wiring
  • Working near or with insulation 

Asbestos was also used to cover pipes, both on the exterior and on the insulation around pipes. In addition to being fire-resistant, asbestos could also protect pipes from electrical surges and currents. 

When installing or repairing pipes, the plumber or pipefitter likely handled asbestos compounds or disturbed asbestos asbestos used during installation or a previous repair. 

If you handled building parts that included asbestos, brushed against them, or in any way disturbed them, then you may have released asbestos dust into the air around you. When these needle-like fibers break from the source, they become airborne and are prone to enter your body.


Impact of Asbestos in Plumbing on Workforce

Asbestos in plumbing materials and elements has led to severe health risks for anyone in this field. Plumbers and pipefitters are at high-risk for developing asbestos diseases. There are many types of cancer and other severe health issues caused by exposure to asbestos. 

Numerous studies have either focused on plumbers developing mesothelioma or discussed the risks associated with the profession.

One study examined asbestos-related diseases in 153 plumbers and pipefitters who worked in building construction. Researchers found that thickening on either side of the pleural space was a common occurrence among the group. This effect, which is a common symptom of pleural mesothelioma, accounted for 18% of the plumbers and pipefitters in the study.

Pleural mesothelioma, the most common type of mesothelioma, forms in the thin membrane between the lung cavity and chest wall called the pleura. The pleura consists of two sides, or tissue walls made up of cells. When pleural mesothelioma forms, a common side effect is thickening along one or both of the pleural cavity walls. 

This study is not the only scientific research connecting plumbing and pipefitting to mesothelioma:

  • Another study, conducted in Italy, showed how the wife of a plumber developed mesothelioma through secondhand asbestos exposure.
  • A different study that showed a woman had mesothelioma after being married to a shipyard plumber.
  • A British study revealed that the asbestos exposure risk for plumbers and pipefitters was equal to that of electrical workers. 

Aside from mesothelioma, there are many other health risks associated with plumbers and asbestos. One of the most common is lung cancer. Just as asbestos fibers enter the body and become lodged in the chest cavity and develop into mesothelioma, they can cause malignancies in the lungs as well. 

If you currently work or used to work as a plumber or pipefitter and have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, there is probably a link between the two. If you have questions about your diagnosis, contact our patient advocate and registered nurse Karen Ritter. She can answer any asbestos-related health questions. Email her at karen@mesotheliomaguide.com for a quick response.


Frequently Asked Questions About Cancer and the Immune System

  • Do PVC pipes have asbestos?

    No, PVC pipes do not contain asbestos. Asbestos was commonly used in construction materials like insulation, ceiling tiles, and pipe insulation before it was banned in the 1970s due to its health risks. PVC pipe is made of plastic and does not contain any asbestos fibers.
  • Does asbestos dissolve in hot water?

    No, asbestos does not dissolve in hot water. In fact, asbestos fibers are resistant to all forms of chemical and biological degradation, making them particularly dangerous when inhaled.
  • Can asbestos be in water?

    Yes, asbestos can be found in water sources, particularly in areas where asbestos-containing minerals are present in the surrounding rock formations. Asbestos can also contaminate water sources through the erosion of asbestos-containing materials, such as pipes or cement, which may leach asbestos fibers into the water supply. Drinking water contaminated with asbestos fibers over prolonged periods can increase the risk of developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illnesses.
  • Are pipefitters exposed to asbestos?

    Yes, pipefitters have a high risk of being exposed to asbestos because pipes and insulation used in the construction of buildings, ships, and other facilities often contained asbestos fibers. When pipefitters install, repair, or remove pipes, they can inhale asbestos fibers that can lead to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. It is important for pipefitters to take proper safety precautions to limit their exposure to asbestos.
  • Do plumbers get mesothelioma?

    Yes, plumbers are at risk for developing mesothelioma if they have been exposed to asbestos in their work environment. Asbestos was commonly used in plumbing materials such as pipes, insulation, and cement, which can release asbestos fibers when disturbed or damaged. It is important for plumbers to take proper safety precautions and use personal protective equipment to minimize their risk of exposure to asbestos.

    Sources & Author

Devin Golden

About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is a content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin's objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.

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    Sources & Author

Picture of Camryn Keeble

About the Writer, Camryn Keeble

Camryn Keeble is a content writer and editor for Mesothelioma Guide. She creates mesothelioma-related content for the Mesothelioma Guide website. Camryn's goal is to decipher advanced information regarding mesothelioma into informative, simplified content to educate those affected by mesothelioma. She also works diligently to raise awareness of mesothelioma and its effects on patients and their loved ones.