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Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Exposure to asbestos usually occurs from one’s work or job. People who worked high-risk trades during the 20th century likely experienced occupational asbestos exposure. This put millions of Americans in danger of mesothelioma.

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Written by Jenna Campagna, RN

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The Most Common Form of Asbestos Exposure

Occupational asbestos exposure accounts for the majority of asbestos diseases, including mesothelioma. Numerous scientific sources attribute on-the-job exposure as the main culprit in the rise of United States mesothelioma cases.

The Departments of Pathology at Georgetown University and Duke University conducted a study of 1,445 malignant mesothelioma cases. Of them, approximately 90% were due to occupational exposure. The remaining 10% were mostly from secondary exposure.

The three jobs with the most cases were:

  • Shipbuilders
  • U.S. Navy members
  • Construction workers

Asbestos was beloved for construction work and in the military. It had the reputation of a “wonder material.” Asbestos coatings and sealants acted as a fireproof around electrical wiring, pipes, floorboards, roof tiles and more.

It was also cheap to produce and purchase, making it worth adding to any material with a risk of overheating or catching fire.

Unfortunately, asbestos is also a carcinogen. It can break apart and release sharp fragments into the air. Workers handling asbestos or working near it would breathe in the particles, putting them at risk of disease.

People At Risk, Type of Mesothelioma and Survival Trends

Mesothelioma primarily affects males, largely because men held jobs that involved asbestos exposure. According to a study published by Translational Oncology, men account for 93% of occupational exposure cases.

Mesothelioma affects elderly people the most, as the disease takes 20-50 years to form. The average age of people with mesothelioma due to occupational exposure is 67. This means a construction worker in their 30s or 40s exposed to asbestos won’t be diagnosed until after retirement.

Occupational exposure to asbestos usually leads to mesothelioma of the pleura (a thin lining near your lungs):

Occupational Exposure Chart
Occupational Exposure Chart Large
  • Pleural mesothelioma occurs in 90.5% of occupational exposure cases.
  • The other type of mesothelioma, which forms in the peritoneum (lining of your abdominal cavity), accounts for 9.5% of occupational exposure cases.

The survival rates are poor for occupational exposure cases. The median survival length is 19 months, largely due to the challenges of treating pleural mesothelioma.

Top Occupations at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

The researchers at Georgetown University and Duke University compiled a list of the top occupations linked to mesothelioma cases. The top 10 jobs are:

Top 10 Exposure Chart
Top 10 Exposure Chart Large

These 10 occupation types include specific trades that better define a person’s duties. The researchers listed the top five jobs led to mesothelioma cases:

Top 5 risk chart

Other jobs with asbestos exposure also have high rates of mesothelioma. One study listed carpentry (a type of construction job) as the top occupation linked to mesothelioma.

Some occupations, such as school teachers, face asbestos exposure due to their interior work setting. One teacher from Philadelphia developed mesothelioma after multiple decades teaching in asbestos-ridden school buildings.

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A nation wide list of sites where you or a loved one may have come in contact with asbestos.

History of Occupational Asbestos Exposure in United States

Scientists made the link between asbestos and health concerns during the 1930s and 1940s. Despite the warnings of asbestos’ health dangers, companies continued mining for the substance and making products with it.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry estimates that from 1940-1979 an estimated 27 million American workers were exposed to asbestos fibers. This level of widespread exposure is why mesothelioma cases increased during the second half of the 20th century. They’ve continued rising into the 21st century.

The Rise of Asbestos

At the start of the 20th century, the U.S. increased its production and use of asbestos. Companies began utilizing it in automobiles, homes, schools and offices. From the 1920s to the 1960s, the country accounted for up to 83% of worldwide asbestos consumption and use.

World War II caused another increase. The U.S. rapidly produced military ships and aircraft. This led to the U.S. Navy having the largest fleet in the world.

The shipbuilders who constructed these vessels depended on asbestos to protect them from fires at sea. These workers were exposed regularly to the substance. Tons of this mineral were hauled to shipyards and applied throughout the new Navy fleet. The people affected include:

Navy veterans who served aboard these ships faced a higher risk than most Americans. More than one-third of people with mesothelioma are military veterans.

Reliance on asbestos continued after World War II ended, largely due the substance’s cheap and durable qualities. In 1973, the United States produced 136,000 tons of asbestos.

Asbestos’ widespread existence in American continued until the 1980s. This is why so many people who worked in specific occupations develop mesothelioma later.

Former Commercial and Industrial Uses of Asbestos

  • Boilers and heating systems
  • Cement pipes
  • Automotive parts (like brake pads and clutches)
  • Electrical wires
  • Chemical containers
  • Heat-protective pads
  • Roofing and flooring materials (such as shingles and tiles)
  • Adhesives and sealants
  • Insulation products
  • Paper products
  • Drywall
  • Paints

Importation of Asbestos

Mining of asbestos stopped in the U.S. in 2002, with the closure of the country’s last asbestos mine. However, the country has not outlawed the use of asbestos. In fact, the U.S. still imports asbestos — around 300 tons in 2020, 170 tons in 2019 and 750 tons in 2018.

Most imported asbestos is for the chlor-alkali industry. Decades ago, though, the country imported hundreds of thousands of tons for roofing materials, cement pipes and more. The peak was 1973, when the U.S. imported 803,000 tons of asbestos.

The Decline of Asbestos Use

World War II was a springboard in the U.S. for increasing asbestos production. Asbestos remained in heavy use through the 1960s and into the 1970s. Since the end of the 1970s, approximately 27 million Americans have been exposed to significant amounts of asbestos.

Around the same time as asbestos’ peak production, the asbestos controversy reached public discussion. This caused the production and use of asbestos to drop annually. By 2001, the amount produced lowered to 5,000 tons.

The Beginning of Regulations

Asbestos-containing materials were common until the 1980s. Instances of occupational exposure began declining as working conditions and regulations were established. This caused the subsequent decline of industrial and commercial asbestos use.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting workers from health hazards by enforcing regulations. The OSHA revealed to the public during the 1970s just how dangerous asbestos is when disturbed. A few years later, the OSHA implemented safety regulations for American workers.

These standards have tremendously decreased occupational exposure to asbestos. However, exposure is still possible if workers are repairing, renovating or maintaining a building that includes asbestos materials.

Occupational Exposure Still a Threat

Asbestos exposure at work remains a risk because asbestos is still used in the United States. Contrary to most people’s knowledge, asbestos is not banned in the country.

The EPA attempted but failed to ban asbestos in 1989. Today, around 1.3 million American workers are exposed to asbestos through their jobs.

Permissible Exposure Limits

The OSHA established the main occupational protection standard, known as the permissible exposure limit (PEL), for asbestos in 1986. The PEL sets a government limit on the concentration of the substance in any given workspace. This asbestos exposure limit is an average across an extended amount of time, such as eight hours.

The PEL for asbestos is an average of 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter over eight hours. The EL is 1.0 asbestos fiber per cubic centimeter over 30 minutes.

These regulations are necessary because of old construction products and the continued use of asbestos products in the United States.

Finding Help After a Diagnosis

If you believe your mesothelioma diagnosis was a result of occupational exposure, there is compensation available to help with treatment. Asbestos trust funds have billions of dollars to help compensate mesothelioma patients and are just one form of support.

We can explain further about mesothelioma compensation for victims of occupational asbestos exposure.

Common Questions About Occupational Asbestos Exposure

What occupations currently have the highest risk of asbestos exposure?

The occupations facing the highest risk of asbestos exposure now are asbestos abatement jobs, firefighters and any repair work on automobiles or buildings. Legacy asbestos, meaning asbestos added decades ago that still exists in old structures, is a health hazard today for these occupations. Legacy asbestos is old and easily disturbed.

Which occupations had the highest risk of asbestos exposure in the past?

Any occupation that involved working with or around asbestos was an at-risk job up until the 1970s. There were quite a lot of these trades, too. The occupations facing the highest risk of exposure during the 20th century were:

  • Military personnel
  • Shipbuilders
  • Construction and insulation workers
  • Pipefitters and plumbers
  • Electricians

What is the permissible exposure limit for asbestos?

The permissible exposure limit (PEL) for asbestos is 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter in an eight-hour period. The regulation limits the concentration of asbestos in the air within a workplace. Another regulation, excursion limit, is 1.0 asbestos fiber per cubic centimeter every 30 minutes.

Can I receive compensation for occupational asbestos exposure?

If you developed mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure, you can seek compensation through various legal measures. You were almost certainly exposed without any warning or knowledge about the dangers of asbestos. In most cases, the negligible party is the asbestos manufacturing company, not your employer.

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