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Paper Mill Workers - Mesothelioma Risks

A common insulator and building material throughout the twentieth century, asbestos was a popular component in many machines. The microscopic fibers, strong and durable, and resistant to heat, fire, and electricity, were used to provide thermal stability in machines, and woven together into fiberboard to create fireproof drywall. The United States Navy even mandated its use on ships to prevent on-board fires. Paper mill workers interacted with it every day in the machines that they used.

Asbestos, found naturally in minerals throughout the world, was a wonder-material, a huge success. But workers began complaining of illness and difficulty breathing. Doctors discovered a connection between asbestos and pleural disease. However, corporations and the government kept this information under wraps. It was decades before the public became aware of the dangers of working with asbestos, and for many, it was too late. Starting in the 1970s, thousands of workers began filing lawsuits against their employers for diseases developed due to their exposure to asbestos on the job. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency passed the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out rule, effectively banning the use of asbestos in the United States. However, it was overturned in 1991 on the grounds that it was too broad. Asbestos manufacturers won back the right to produce their goods, though under much heavier regulations.

Asbestos is generally safe when it's stable, but becomes deadly when disrupted or disturbed. In the paper mill, the constant jarring of the machines releases tiny asbestos particles in the air. When breathed in, the fibers, which can be curly in shape or long and needle-like, become lodged in the mesothelium, the protective membrane that lines the chest cavity and helps the lungs expand and contract. When this is inhibited, breathing is made difficult. The asbestos contributes to this, and also to the growth of malignant cells which replace healthy ones, a cancer known as mesothelioma.

Symptoms of mesothelioma take years or even decades to develop, so doctors generally can't diagnose it until it has advanced to late stages. And because there is no cure, doctors can only offer palliative treatments to relieve pain caused by symptoms of the disease and provide comfort to patients. Surgery is the most effective method of removing a growth, but because the tumor is generally close to the lungs, this procedure may be dangerous. The general health of the patient also comes into play, and as mesothelioma is usually diagnosed in older patients, it is often unavailable to patients.

Other common methods of treatment include chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which use drugs and powerful X-rays, respectively, to combat cancerous cells. These treatments are often given together or in conjunction with surgery, but can also be given individually if needed. Alternative treatments are also being developed as researchers find out more about this rare disease. Offered at cancer centers throughout the country, these programs offer researchers the ability to monitor patients and find out how to best fight cancer while giving mesothelioma patients cutting edge treatment that could help not only them but an entire population of patients fighting similar battles.

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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