Mesothelioma can be quite a selective cancer. The only known cause is exposure to asbestos, which occurs in specific jobs at higher frequencies than other occupations.
We’ve compiled a list of a few of the occupations most often linked to asbestos exposure and mesothelioma. Each job has a link to more information about how asbestos plays a role in the every‑day responsibilities, along with examples or statistics of mesothelioma affecting workers.
Veterans of the U.S. military have the highest rates of mesothelioma compared to any other past occupation. The Navy is the branch with the highest rates of mesothelioma within the military. So it makes sense for Navy veterans to rank at or near the top of the list for asbestos exposure and mesothelioma.
Researchers at Georgetown University and Duke University found 175 cases of Navy veterans with mesothelioma. This was the second most on the list of 1,445 cases in total.
The reason Navy veterans were exposed to asbestos is the Navy ships included hoards of the mineral. This means the people building the ships were in direct contact with asbestos — hence, why mesothelioma among shipyard workers is an issue.
Ships catching fire at sea was a safety concern for the entire crew. Asbestos was an easy solution to prevent this risk from becoming reality. So shipbuilders used asbestos when constructing and putting together the many parts of Navy ships.
The same study from Georgetown University and Duke University actually lists shipyard workers as having the highest rates of mesothelioma. The researchers found 289 cases of former shipyard workers out of the 1,445 cases in total.
Brake linings were built with chrysotile asbestos starting in the 1940s. This prevented vehicles from catching fire. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it is nearly impossible to identify asbestos dust on brakes or clutches.
However, the braking process causes dust to build up in the wheel well. This dust, called forsterite, can include fragments of asbestos disturbed from pressure applied to brakes.
Mechanics installing new brakes were exposed up until the 1980s. Since many old vehicles are brought in for repairs, automobile mechanics were exposed in the 1990s and 2000s when replacing worn down brakes.
Asbestos is durable, cheap and heat‑resistant. This is an appealing trifecta for specific industries, most notably construction.
The goal is to construct buildings that resist storms, fires and more. This protects people inside and around the buildings. If it can be built without breaking the bank, even better.
Unfortunately, the desire to include asbestos as a solution to multiple issues created a health issue for workers. They handled asbestos directly, often leading to weightless sharp fibers floating in the air.
There are plenty of construction jobs with more specific responsibilities and expertise. Some of these jobs fall within the category of high risk for asbestos exposure. They include:
In 1990, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 300 mesothelioma cases among insulation workers in the United States and Canada.
Firefighters run into burning buildings, not out of them. As was established, many buildings were constructed with asbestos mixtures to add durability to tiles, electrical wiring, shingles, paint and more.
When fires occur in these buildings, the asbestos is disturbed and damaged. This splinters small pieces of asbestos from the mixture. Firefighters attempting to save people and put out blazes are often breathing in toxic air, including these sharp fibers.
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Centers is the most publicized example of asbestos exposure for firefighters. The skyscrapers were built with tons of asbestos, all of which became a health hazard in Manhattan when the buildings fell.
Asbestos in the electrical industry was an afterthought for decades. Its applications on electrical products were plentiful. The main use was for insulation around:
- Electrical wiring
- Control boards
- Switch gears
Why? Because, again, asbestos is fire‑resistant. So any opportunities to protect wires or switch boards from catching fire was a necessity. Unfortunately, asbestos was a health hazard. There are high rates of former electricians with mesothelioma.
Machinists operate machines or use hand tools to modify metal, plastic or wood parts. They also repair and assemble these machines, many of which require heat.
Machinists and asbestos are linked due to the use of these tools. These machines often would ground parts together. This led to a cloud of dust, which included splintered asbestos fibers. Machinists also used their tools on objects built with asbestos, which contaminated the air.
One study found 42 mesothelioma cases among former railroad machinists. Another found 89 cases among all types of machinists.
Hairdressers and Hair Stylists
Asbestos was used for decades in products prone to heat. Since asbestos is a heat‑resistant mineral, it protected these items from catching fire. Hair dryers, for instance, were made with asbestos up until the 1970s and 1980s. This put many hairdressers and hair stylists at risk of asbestos exposure.
According to an article in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled many hair dryers in 1979 due to asbestos concerns. Despite this, many hairstylists continued using these products during the 1980s.
Bakers and Pastry Cooks
Again, heat is an integral topic when discussing asbestos. Baking ovens require extremely high temperatures for proper functioning. So these ovens were often lined with asbestos to keep flames inside.
The American Journal of Industrial Medicine found eight cases of bakers and pastry cooks with mesothelioma. Asbestos fibers could loosen and contaminate the air where bakers worked, or even fall onto the food being cooked.
Manufacturing Plant Workers
Manufacturing plants were common work settings for asbestos exposure. Quite a few plant workers were exposed regularly, such as textile workers, aluminum smelting workers and more.
Textile workers, for instance, turned natural and artificial fibers into yarn to create clothing and household products. These products often were made with asbestos. So textile workers often were in close proximity to asbestos without knowledge of any health hazards.
Aluminum smelting workers extract aluminum from its oxide, alumina. This requires heat at 1,800 degrees to produce aluminum metal. Since the temperature is so high and high‑voltage electricity is involved, asbestos insulation was used within the plants and on appliances, protective worker clothing and more.
Clay Artists, Painters and Jewelry Makers
Not many people associate painting, clay artistry and jewelry to asbestos. However, there is a link to all three occupations — in different ways.
Clay is a natural rock that can contain talc, which is a mineral found near asbestos. So any mining for clay can include asbestos unintentionally. Since asbestos fibers are so small — hidden to the untrained eye — it’s often undetected. This is how clay artists are exposed to asbestos.
Asbestos was also a component of paint for most of the 20th century. It was used as a filler for paint, particularly for shipyard and bridge jobs. The British Journal of Cancer listed painters as one of the most at risk of exposure to asbestos.
Jewelry making might be the biggest surprise, but it makes sense when you consider the temperatures involved. The process involves soldering, which requires a clay‑like blob to stick metal parts together. Water mixed with asbestos creates such a blob, which jewelry makers then heat to join the metal together. The presence of asbestos is why jewelry makers are at risk of mesothelioma.