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Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Exposure to asbestos usually occurs from a person’s work or job. People who worked in high-risk trades during the 20th century likely experienced occupational asbestos exposure. This put millions of Americans in danger of developing 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-related medical diagnoses, including the rare and deadly cancer called mesothelioma. Numerous scientific sources attribute on-the-job exposure as the main culprit in the rise of mesothelioma cases in the United States — and across the globe.

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 because of its reputation as a “wonder material.” Asbestos coatings and sealants acted as a fireproof material 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 dangerous sharp fragments into the air. Workers who handled asbestos or worked near it would breathe in these particles, putting them at risk of developing an asbestos-related disease.

People At Risk, Type of Mesothelioma and Survival Trends

Mesothelioma primarily affects males, largely because men held jobs that involved asbestos exposure in the workplace. According to a study published by Translational Oncology, this gender accounts for 93% of occupational exposure mesothelioma cases.

This cancer affects elderly people the most, as the disease takes between 20 and 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 can be exposed to asbestos fibers but not be diagnosed until after they’ve retired.

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

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

The survival rates are poor for people exposed to asbestos at work. The median survival length was 19 months for these cases, 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 asbestos exposure jobs linked to this deadly cancer are:

Top 10 Exposure Chart
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These 10 occupation types include specific trades that better define a person’s job duties. The researchers listed the top five high-risk jobs for asbestos that 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, may face asbestos exposure due to their work setting including the dangerous substance. One teacher from Philadelphia developed mesothelioma after multiple decades teaching in asbestos-ridden school buildings.

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Find out where you may have been exposed to asbestos

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 what exposure to asbestos could do to the human body, companies continued to mine for the substance. They continued crafting products that contain asbestos.

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 largely why mesothelioma cases increased during the second half of the 20th century — and 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, as the U.S. rapidly produced military ships and aircraft. The U.S. Navy had 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 these shipyards and applied throughout the construction of the Navy fleet. The people affected include:

Navy veterans who served aboard these ships also 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.

Until the 1980s, asbestos was a threat in almost every commercially manufactured product. Its widespread existence in American commercial and industrial society is why so many people who worked in specific occupations develop mesothelioma later in life.

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 100 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 to use on 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 and implementation in the country, the asbestos controversy reached public discussion and the production and use of asbestos dropped annually. By 2001, the amount produced dropped to just 5,000 tons.

The Beginning of Regulations

Asbestos-containing building materials were common until the 1980s. Instances of occupational exposure began declining as working conditions and regulations regarding asbestos were established. This caused the subsequent decline — but not the end — of industrial and commercial asbestos use.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting workers from health hazards by enforcing regulations on uses of asbestos-containing materials. 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 U.S.

The EPA attempted to ban asbestos in 1989, but the try failed. 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 the air in any given workspace. This asbestos exposure limit is usually an average across an extended amount of time, such as eight hours.

Another regulation is excursion limit (EL). The EL sets a maximum exposure amount to asbestos for a short timeframe (30 minutes).

The PEL for asbestos is an average of 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter in an eight-hour period. 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 your treatment. Asbestos trust funds have billions of dollars to help compensate mesothelioma patients and are just one form of support for you and your family.

We can explain further about mesothelioma compensation for Americans who were exposed to asbestos from their work.

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