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Steel Mill Workers - Mesothelioma Risks

Steel mills are hot, dirty workplaces. Turning raw ore into usable steel requires high temperatures and machinery with moving parts, which in turn require insulation. In most steel mills, this insulation is made from asbestos, an organic mineral which is extremely resistant to flame, heat, electricity and corrosion.

While asbestos has proved incredibly useful as an industrial additive - it can be combined with metals, cement, fabric, plastics and many other materials, in order to make them stronger and fireproof - it is also, tragically, a carcinogen. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, but the longer or more frequent the exposure, the greater the chance a worker has of contracting an asbestos cancer, like mesothelioma.

Because of the numerous applications for which asbestos was used in steel mills, including gaskets, pipes, furnace and boiler parts, insulation and protective clothing, to name just a few, steel mill workers have a higher incidence of contracting mesothelioma than the general population. Although asbestos use in new equipment and construction has been phased out since the 1980s, the substance remains in many workplaces and continues to pose a threat.

When asbestos dust becomes airborne, it can be breathed in by anyone on-site who is not equipped with respirators. It can also be carried off-site by those workers, since it can cling to fabrics and hair. When the asbestos is breathed in, its microscopic, needle-like fibers embed themselves into a membrane called the mesothelium, which surrounds and protects the lungs and other organs. From there, they cause mesothelial cells to become malignant and multiply erratically. This is malignant pleural mesothelioma. There are other types of mesothelioma, notably pericardial (heart) and peritoneal (stomach) but they are less common that pleural mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are often very similar to the symptoms of more common respiratory disorders, such as asthma, emphysema, or bronchitis. Some of the symptoms - fatigue, difficulty breathing during exertion, and cough - can be so vague that they are sometimes even mistaken for signs of aging, or of the common cold. Particularly if the patient's health care practitioner is not made aware of the previous or ongoing exposure to asbestos, the wrong diagnosis can easily be made, which of course can make treatment challenging.

Moreover, mesothelioma has a long latency period; a worker who was exposed to asbestos decades ago may only now be exhibiting symptoms. It's rare for a mesothelioma diagnosis to be made when the disease is still in the early stages. Most patients receive a diagnosis only when their cancer has advanced so far that it is no longer operable or even really treatable. At this point, chemotherapy and radiation may provide palliative care, and make the patient more comfortable. A procedure called thoracentesis can be used to help improve the patient's breathing, because it removes excess fluid from the pleural cavity.

Currently, there is no cure for mesothelioma. It is an aggressive cancer, and those who are diagnosed with it have a life expectancy of only 18 months on average.

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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