Asbestos
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Stevedores - Mesothelioma Risks

All shipyard workers, including stevedores (who are also known as longshoremen) have an elevated risk of exposure to asbestos, and therefore to the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. The reason for this is simple: the vast amounts of asbestos that were in use both on board ships and in the shipyards during construction and loading.

Asbestos occurs naturally, and since it is not only strong, durable and flexible, but also resists high temperatures, fire, corrosion and electricity, can be used in a number of different insulation and fireproofing products. Most people are familiar with asbestos as a component of either acoustical ceiling tiles or attic insulation. Yet asbestos was also used widely in the construction, shipbuilding, metal fabrication and other industries. Everything from gaskets and joint compound to cement mixes and electrical wiring was made with asbestos. Although many consumers believe that asbestos is banned in the United States, there are numerous consumer products still on the market today that contain asbestos in some amount.

The risk of fire on board ships was so frightening that asbestos was widely used in electrical systems, boilers and steam pipes, exhaust systems, instruments and instrument paneling, adhesives, brake linings, gaskets and flanges, and floor, wall and ceiling tiles. In fact, over 300 asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were used on ships until the 1970s.

Asbestos's prevalence, however, has proved fatal to many unfortunate shipyard workers, including stevedores. When it remains intact and undisturbed, asbestos is generally considered safe. Once its fibers becomes broken, however, they are released into the air, where they pose a hazard to anyone in the vicinity. Asbestos fibers are sharp, spiky, and respirable - which means that when they are inhaled, they lodge themselves in the lungs and other soft tissues of the body. The mesothelium, a membrane which protects and surrounds the lungs, is particularly vulnerable to infiltration by the asbestos particulate. The asbestos can cause the mesothelial cells to become malignant, therefore causing the asbestos cancer mesothelioma.

Although mesothelioma is rare, it is becoming more common. This is due to the latency period of the disease, which is anywhere from 10 to 50 years. People who worked in shipyards during the Korean or Vietnam Wars, or even World War II, might therefore have just begun to become symptomatic recently. It's expected that mesothelioma diagnoses are expected to peak worldwide within the next five to 10 years. Shipyard workers have one of the highest rates of mesothelioma diagnoses among all occupational groups.

Mesothelioma is also often mistaken for other respiratory illnesses, such as emphysema, bronchitis, asthma or even influenza. Many people mistake the fatigue and shortness of breath that can accompany the cancer for simply the signs of aging. Therefore, it's unusual for a mesothelioma diagnosis to be made when the disease is still in its earliest stages - when surgery and effective treatment are most possible. Instead, the cancer has usually progressed to such a late stage by the time that it is diagnosed that there is little hope the oncologist can offer, beyond the palliative measures used to make the patient more comfortable.

Although researchers are hard at work, and clinical trials to discover new treatments are ongoing, there is currently no cure for 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