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Laborers - Mesothelioma Risks

For many laborers of the twentieth century, hands-on work meant tough conditions, long hours, and poor wages. In most cases, it also meant exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos, seen as a wonder-material because of its heat- and fire-resistant properties, as well as its strength, durability and insulation against electric conductivity, was used in many building materials, fire proofing tools, and household goods. Everything from home insulation to toasters to automobile brakes contained the microscopic fiber, which is found naturally in minerals throughout the world. The United States government even mandated its use in Navy ships, to prevent on-board fires.

However, in addition to its versatility and unparalleled toughness, asbestos brought with it a trait that was unexpected: carcinogens. Prolonged exposure became known to cause respiratory problems, lung diseases, and the rare but aggressive cancer mesothelioma. How much of this was known to corporations is debatable, but documents have come out in lawsuits that show that corporations and the government knew far more than the general public did. It was only in the 1970s that the hazards of asbestos were known to the general public; big business and Uncle Sam knew decades before that.

How is asbestos harmful? While generally safe when undisturbed - so it's OK in sealed or covered drywall and insulation - friable asbestos becomes dangerous when it is disrupted, as it is during building, repairs and renovation, or even removal. At this point, the microscopic fibers, which are released into the air, become respirable. Once inhaled, the particles, some curly shaped and some long and needle-like, become lodged in the mesothelium, a protective membrane which lines the body's major organs. The lining makes it possible for the lungs to expand and collapse, enabling breathing. When asbestos fibers infiltrate these tissues, malignant cells replace healthy ones, sometimes causing mesothelioma.

In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency enacted the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out rule, declaring asbestos illegal. In 1991, it was overturned. Instead, companies can still use asbestos in their products, but only in trace amounts and under heavy regulation.

Because of a long latency period, which means symptoms may take years or even decades to develop, diagnosis of mesothelioma is usually delayed until the disease has reached advanced stages. At that point, though researchers have not yet discovered a cure, treatment is available. Surgery is the most effective method of stopping the growth, but the location of the tumor relative to lungs, as well as the general health of a patient by the time the mesothelioma is diagnosed, makes this a relatively difficult procedure.

Other common options then are chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which use drugs and powerful x-rays, respectively, to target and destroy cancerous cells. As doctors learn more about the illusive disease, they are able to give alternative treatments that attack growths in new ways. Because these methods are still in development, they are given at cancer clinics, and patients are carefully monitored. This gives patients the opportunity to receive cutting edge treatments, and researchers the ability to find out more about what can be done to beat mesothelioma.

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Workers at Risk for Asbestos Exposure

Below are a list of occupations and trades that were at risk for asbestos exposure:

Last Edited: Thu November 14, 2013