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Written By: Devin Golden

Asbestos Exposure Among Textile Workers

Textile workers in manufacturing plants and mills were frequently exposed to asbestos during the 20th century. These work settings included asbestos due to heat processes and heating equipment, along with insulation covering overhead pipes. Both textile workers and maintenance crews were regularly exposed to this cancerous mineral.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

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Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent

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Important Facts About Asbestos Exposure Among Textile Workers

  • Textile workers turned fabric into yarn to make clothing and other household products more durable. These workers and others in textile mills were exposed to asbestos that insulated and protected pipes or heating equipment.
  • The rate of incidence among textile workers is much higher than the rate among the general population regardless of occupation.
  • While asbestos is not used in textile manufacturing plants today, many workers from the 20th century are at risk of developing this rare cancer now due to the long time the disease takes to develop.

Description of Textile Work

Textile workers are involved in the production, manufacturing and processing of textiles and fabrics. They source natural and artificial materials to transform the fibers into yarn. This yarn is used to create clothing, household products and other industrial goods.

There are various positions and processes in the textile industry: designers, spinners, weavers, colorists, sewing machine operators and inspectors. Each position performs a specific function within the textile manufacturing process.

The textile industry occupation existed in the United States for centuries. It began in the United States during the 18th century in New England and quickly spread to other states as the country grew.

Textile work remains strong today. According to the National Council for Textile Organizations, there were around 538,000 textile workers in 2022. The country’s textile and apparel shipments totaled $65.8 billion that year.

How Asbestos Affects Textile Workers

Unfortunately, the nature of textile work in the 20th century often involved exposure to asbestos, a known carcinogen.

Depending on the job within the textile plant, workers could come into contact with potential asbestos-containing materials used in the installation and repair of the plants’ equipment and heat processes. Asbestos was capable of resisting heat, which made it an appealing choice to insulate heating equipment and other parts involved in heat, such as:

  • Boilers
  • Furnaces
  • Gaskets on pumps
  • Overhead pipes connecting to manufacturing equipment and boilers
  • Heating presses

Since textile and fabric manufacturing to create clothing and other products requires heat, there was a desire for asbestos in these plants. 

The substance’s presence led to regular occupational asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a sensitive mineral, and the slightest touch or disturbance could cause razor-sharp fibers to be inhaled or swallowed, potentially causing infection, cell mutation and tumor formation.

Maintenance workers who installed or repaired the pipes, boilers, presses or furnaces were regularly exposed to any asbestos in these areas – either from disturbing asbestos already in place or installing asbestos as an insulant. Textile workers would have bystander exposure from any disturbed asbestos that released loose fibers and contaminated the workspace.

Towards the end of the 20th century, asbestos was phased out of most industrial uses, including asbestos in textile plants. By the turn of the 21st century, on-the-job asbestos exposure was limited to legacy asbestos exposure. This term refers to any asbestos still present in old buildings, such as textile manufacturing plants with outdated equipment or pipes.

Asbestos in Textiles

The primary source of asbestos exposure for textile workers is from using or being near heating equipment. There were a few uses of asbestos in the actual textiles.

Since asbestos was small and fibrous, it could be mixed into textiles as a fireproofing agent. This was a desired characteristic for use in creating protective work clothing, such as:

  • Firefighter uniforms
  • Aviator and race car driver jumpsuits
  • Aprons, gloves, leggings and more for factory workers using hot temperatures, such as glass, foundry or steel workers

People who worked textile jobs during the 20th century involved in creating fabrics for these clothes may have directly worked with asbestos and therefore were at high risk of exposure.

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How 20th Century Textile Work Can Cause Mesothelioma

Asbestos is the only cause of a rare cancer called mesothelioma. This cancer usually forms in the lining of the lungs or abdomen. Asbestos exposure can also cause lung cancer, ovarian cancer, and a deadly lung scarring disease called asbestosis.

Mesothelioma has a long latency period, which means the cancer does not develop for at least 10-20 years after exposure. In some instances, mesothelioma doesn’t develop for 40-50 years. This means that many textile workers from the 1970s and 1980s may have just been diagnosed with the disease – or soon will be.

Incidence Rate of Mesothelioma Among Textile Workers

A study from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) covers asbestos exposure among textile manufacturing jobs through 1975. It includes 2,722 men and 554 women who held textile manufacturing jobs.

Among them, 17 died of mesothelioma. The incidence rate (0.5%) is much higher than the incidence of mesothelioma among all types of workers.

The incidence rate on a per-100,000 basis is around 16% per 100,000 textile workers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall rate of mesothelioma per 100,000 people is approximately 1%.

Another study published in Cancer Medicine found 108 mesothelioma deaths among textile workers, further proving there’s a risk of asbestos exposure for this occupation.

Patient Advocates to Help Former Textile Workers With Mesothelioma

If you ever worked in a textile manufacturing plant and now have mesothelioma, contact our medical team. Email our patient advocate and registered nurse Karen Ritter at karen@mesotheliomaguide.com for guidance on finding treatment. She can also assist with legal options to help you and your family recover money from lost wages, medical bills and more hardships.

Sources & Author

    1. U.S. Textile Industry. National Council of Textile Organizations. Retrieved from: http://www.ncto.org/facts-figures/us-textile-industry/. Accessed: 05/31/2023.
    2. Asbestos. United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/asbestos. Accessed: 08/02/2023.
    3. Updated mortality study of a cohort of asbestos textile workers. Cancer Medicine. Retrieved from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/cam4.824. Accessed: 11/05/2020.
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.