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Steamfitters - Mesothelioma Risks

Steamfitters are highly skilled workers who take care of heating and steam systems, which include boilers, furnaces, radiators, and industrial laundry and kitchen equipment. Steamfitters work to install, repair or maintain these pieces of equipment and the infrastructures which support them, including the pipes, pumps, traps, gaskets and valves. Naturally, these must all be heavily insulated, since they are constantly exposed to high temperatures, boiling water, and hot steam. Any of the heat or steam equipment or other parts that were manufactured or installed before the 1980s would most likely have an asbestos-based insulation of some kind.

Asbestos is a remarkable mineral, with extreme resistance to heat, fire, electricity and corrosion. This, in combination with its flexibility, makes it an ideal component for insulating materials, such as fabric insulation or spray-on insulation. Asbestos is also commonly found in pipes, joints, joint compound, boiler and furnace parts, gaskets, and even the materials used to construct the walls, ceilings and floors of many structures.

Unfortunately, asbestos also happens to be carcinogen. Exposure to this mineral, especially repeated or prolonged exposure, is considered to be one of the primary causes of developing asbestosis, mesothelioma, pleural plaques, asbestos-related lung cancer, and possibly even some other cancers. Although the adverse health effects of asbestos exposure has been known for centuries, the usefulness of the substance has often led companies and governments to downplay its dangers in order to continue using it.

Steamfitters are particularly at risk for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers. Their work not only directly involves the asbestos-laden products and equipment, but also takes them into cramped, poorly ventilated areas that might be additionally contaminated with asbestos particulate.

When asbestos dust is inhaled, it works its way into the lungs and other organs, as well as into the soft tissues surrounding the organs, called the mesothelioma. There, the needle-like fibers that make up this dust can turn malignant, causing the cells to replicate erratically. This develops into malignant pleural mesothelioma, a rare but severe cancer.

Mesothelioma, like most cancers, is staged according to the size of the tumor and its progression throughout the body, including whether or not it has moved to the lymph nodes. Mesothelioma can sometimes be operable, depending on the location of the tumor and its proximity to the lungs, but only in the very earliest stage. Once it has spread, radiation therapy and chemotherapy can be given to try to slow the cancer's progress and to alleviate its symptoms. There is also a procedure called thoracentesis, which involves removal of excess pleural fluid from the interstitial area between the lungs and the chest wall in order to make the patient's breathing easier.

Currently, there is no cure for mesothelioma, and patients live only an average of 18 months after diagnosis. Since asbestos remains in many existing structures despite its use in new construction and manufacturing now being regulated, and because the disease has a latency period of several decades, the number of mesothelioma cases worldwide is expected to peak in the next 10 to 20 years. If you or someone you love has worked as a steamfitter, or currently holds that job, it's important for you to educate yourself about the symptoms of mesothelioma and to inform your health care practitioner about the possibility of your occupational asbestos exposure.

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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