Asbestos has a terrible reputation these days, and for good reason. This tiny crystal, though it provides some serious benefits in building and electrical applications, can be deadly to those who experience routine exposure to it.
Unfortunately, while the height of asbestos exposure occurred decades ago when the substance was still routinely used across industries all over the United States, the damage is still very much present. Moreover, though its use was banned in the 1970s and early 1980s, many workers still aren’t safe from exposure.
It is critical, therefore, to know what asbestos is, where you’re likely to encounter it, what it does to the body, how to keep yourself safe, and what to do if you have received high levels of exposure.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a crystalline fiber. It looks like long strands, but each visible strand is actually composed of numerous microscopic strands. Because they are so rigid and delicate, these strands shatter and become airborne easily.
What Was Asbestos Used For?
Humans have appreciated asbestos’s uses since antiquity. Asbestos is excellent as a fire retardant, as well as an insulator for heat and electrical applications. Because of this, it was used across many industries, from automotive to appliances to construction and shipyards. In some cases (as in building insulation), it was used on its own. In other cases, it was mixed into other substances, such as cement. It was also used in roofing tiles and textiles. Its use was most prevalent from 1900 to 1970, peaking in World War II.
Also, be aware that asbestos is still used in some applications today. It is tightly controlled and heavily monitored, says the United States Department of Labor, with frequent medical checks, especially focused on the lungs and heart.
Also, “The employer is required to make the prescribed tests available at least annually to those employees covered; more often than specified if recommended by the examining physician and upon the termination of employment.”
How Should Asbestos-Containing Materials Be Monitored?
Because asbestos is so dangerous when disturbed – its crystalline fibers are still susceptible to breakage and becoming airborne, even decades after their installation – experts often recommend that building owners and managers leave asbestos in place and cover it with a safe substance that will protect people in that building. Because of that, any structure containing asbestos should seek ongoing monitoring.
“While only school buildings are required to have surveillance checks every six months, it is a good practice for other buildings with ACM [asbestos-containing materials],” says the EPA. “The asbestos program manager (APM) should establish appropriate surveillance and reinspection intervals, based on consultation with the building owner and any others involved in the O&M program.”
Consistent monitoring will protect both workers in the building as well as anyone who routinely spends time in it. This is especially important when retrofitting buildings that were formerly constructed with the use of asbestos. If you’re a worker who is engaged in a project that involves the removal of asbestos, or any other form of contact with it, ask your employer what kind of monitoring you can expect.
What Happens to People Who Are Exposed to Asbestos?
Because asbestos fibers are so small, they are easily inhaled by workers handling the material. Once they get inside the lungs, they don’t get expelled again. Instead, they embed into the soft tissue lining the lungs as well as other organs. There, they cause thickening and sometimes cancer. The two main diseases caused by asbestos include:
Asbestosis is a disease that causes shortness of breath, chest pain and tightness, swelling of fingers and toes, loss of appetite, weight loss and a persistent, dry cough. Over time, the thickening of the lungs and other organ linings may lead to cancer.
This type of cancer is purely associated with asbestos exposure; it has no other known cause. Mesothelioma may affect the lining of the lungs, heart and, in rare cases, the abdominal cavity or testicles. Those who are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma have a prognosis of 5 years or less.
Who Is at Risk for Disease Related to Asbestos?
The most common environments include construction sites, home renovations, shipyards, submarine bases, power plants, railroads, mines, oil refineries, offshore drilling platforms and power plants. Anyone who worked in such environments, whether in a civil, corporate or military capacity, is at risk of complications from asbestos exposure.
Today, many job sites still contain asbestos, to which workers are routinely exposed. Again, many of these environments contain asbestos from decades ago, but this doesn’t make it any less dangerous. It’s very important to take protective steps whenever there is a chance of exposure.
How Can Workers Prevent Harm from Asbestos Exposure?
Because of this, it is crucial that they take precautions to prevent the inhalation of asbestos, says the National Cancer Institute (NCI): “Workers should use all protective equipment provided by their employers and follow recommended workplace practices and safety procedures. For example, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved respirators that fit properly should be worn by workers when required.”
It’s important you don’t stay silent, either. “Workers who are concerned about asbestos exposure in the workplace should discuss the situation with other employees, their employee health and safety representative, and their employers,” cautions NCI. “If necessary, OSHA can provide more information or make an inspection.” Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself or others.
Asbestosis and mesothelioma are more likely in smokers, so if you are worried about current or previous exposure, you should seek help for nicotine addiction and kick cigarettes immediately.
What Can You Do If You’ve Been Exposed?
Sadly, by the time physicians learned of the damage asbestos causes, it was too late for many people; they’d already received high doses. If you’re one of the people who worked closely with the material decades ago and are now sick, or if you have a loved one who meets those qualifications, it’s time to seek legal help. You may deserve compensation, and a qualified attorney can help you get it.
If you would like to learn more about asbestos exposure, either preventing it or seeking compensation for asbestos-related diseases, we invite you to get in touch. Please feel free to ask any questions you may have or request a consultation with an attorney. It’s wrong for your life to suffer because of an employer’s negligence, so don’t wait to get your due today.
- Asbestos Products. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.asbestos.com/products/
- Medical Surveillance Guidelines for Asbestos. (1994). Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.1001AppH
- Monitoring Asbestos-Containing Material (ACM). (2018). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/monitoring-asbestos-containing-material-acm
- Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk. (ND). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet#q8