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Decades later, airborne asbestos remains a public health hazard - here’s who's affected the most

Asbestos, once considered an innovative material in home building and industry, has since become feared for its toxicity. Learn who is at risk.

 

 

Asbestos, once considered a revolutionary material in home building and industry, has since become feared for its toxicity, stirring a decades-long public health scare. Due to its malleable, yet heat and corrosion-resistant properties, it was once common to find asbestos in nearly every construction material from insulation, plastic, tile, adhesives, and roof shingles, to major home appliances.1

While regulation has heavily restricted most asbestos applications, older buildings and machinery still frequently contain high-percentage asbestos products, leaving many to wonder—am I or a loved one at risk of exposure?

Fortunately, since asbestos isn’t considered dangerous until it is disturbed and the fibers become suspended in the air as PM2.5 or PM10, it’s generally people with occupations that deal with these materials, that are at the most risk.

Once these fibers are inhaled they can lead to numerous health issues, including the rare and aggressive mesothelioma cancer.2 With this toxic substance being the number one cause of occupational cancer in the U.S., it’s vital to identify which industries handle asbestos-containing material in their everyday duties and take or encourage the proper precautions when at risk of exposure.3

 

While we continue to push for progressive global policies, as well as local bans on this carcinogen, our best tool is spreading awareness, so people can know how to best protect themselves. Highlighted below are the most high-risk occupations and how these workers may come into contact with asbestos.

1. Construction Workers

Construction already has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous jobs due to the risk of injury from heavy equipment and falls; however, asbestos exposure is another important factor. This industry is known to have one of the highest uses of materials that contain asbestos, which includes insulation, roof shingles, cement, and floor tile, to name a few. Over 1 million construction workers are exposed to this substance annually through repair and renovation projects.4 With numerous jobs at risk, some of the most vulnerable include demolition crews, drywall installers, roofers, cement workers, and pipefitters.

2. Shipyard Workers

Due to asbestos’ “miracle” properties such as heat and fire resistance, the substance was prominently used throughout ships, especially within the military, for nearly every aspect of construction, from boilers and insulation to the paint on the walls. Navy veterans are especially vulnerable to developing asbestosis or mesothelioma because they’re potentially exposed to damaged or corroded materials in a confined vessel for long periods. Those involved in this field should monitor their health, as symptoms of asbestosis or mesothelioma can take 10-50 years to show.

3. Firefighters

Asbestos poses a serious health threat to firefighters, as flames break down protective enclosures and binding attributes, releasing asbestos into the air. While firefighters are usually vigilant in wearing protective gear to ward off exposure, the fibers can remain airborne even after the fire is controlled, causing a false sense of security. In the US alone, over 800,000 tons of asbestos were produced before 1973, making any building built before 1980 at risk of containing the toxin.5

4. Mechanics

Mechanics are at high-risk because asbestos has long been considered an ideal material for mechanical parts. Aside from older equipment, repair shops are often not well-ventilated, causing the risk of asbestos dust to accumulate. There is also a risk of exposure through inadequate cleanup procedures, such as wiping away dust and causing the fibers to become airborne and easily inhaled. It’s crucial to consider these factors as many workers are unaware that the products they use can contain asbestos and therefore don’t take proper precautions to protect their lungs.

 

The best means for protecting oneself from Asbestos is to understand the level of hazard present in the air. As an invisible, scentless particle, asbestos is particularly troublesome since it’s impossible to gauge the threat level without the proper tools for doing so. The AirVisual Pro air quality monitor is an excellent tool for identifying the level of airborne particles and informing what precautions need be taken at each stage. It’s easy to understand, and color-coded icons convey the data in simple terms so that the whole team can get involved in improving air quality.

Article Resources

[1] Asbestos Management and Control Program: Asbestos Containing Materials. (2004).
https://www.des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/air/cb/ceps/ams/documents/materials.pdf

[2] Nelson, T. (2019). Malignant Mesothelioma:  Causes, Symptoms, Prognosis. 
https://www.mesotheliomadiagnosis.com/mesothelioma/

[3] Takayama, J. (2018, February 15). Asbestos: elimination of absbestos-related diseases.
https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/asbestos-elimination-of-asbestos-related-diseases

[4] Asbestos Toxicity: Who is at risk of exposure to asbestos? (2016, August 9). 
https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=29&po=7

[5] Schneider, S. (2014). Asbestos Still a Problems after All These Years.
https://www.lhsfna.org/index.cfm/lifelines/december-2014/asbestos-still-a-problem-after-all-these-years/
 

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