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Asbestos Safety Demands Lifelong Vigilance - Here's Why

Asbestos Safety Demands Lifelong Vigilance - Here's Why

May 9, 2024
Nearly two out of every five Americans have worked in high-risk occupations where asbestos was prevalent.

Workplace safety is a constant balance between the costs of preventative measures and industry’s need for productivity and profitability.  As a case study of this tradeoff, the asbestos tragedy offers a cautionary tale as stubborn and recurring as virtually indestructible asbestos.

While regulations and public awareness have curbed its use, and recent action by the EPA has banned some of the remaining uses of asbestos, a recent study by Researchscape research firm reveals a sobering truth: asbestos exposure remains a significant threat in the United States today. 

The Researchscape study also reveals that the dangers of asbestos are often underestimated, and that the ongoing testing recommended by researchers is being dangerously neglected.

Study: Nearly 40% of Americans Exposed to Asbestos at Work
A staggering 38% of Americans, nearly two out of every five, have worked in high-risk occupations where asbestos was prevalent. This includes jobs in construction, shipbuilding, automotive repair, and electrical work, to name a few. These workers faced direct exposure to asbestos fibers in products like insulation, pipe lagging, and brake linings.

But only one third of respondents were aware that asbestos exposure from decades ago poses ongoing risks, and only 8% of them were regularly screened for asbestos damage.

A Long Shadow: Why Asbestos Remains a Modern-Day Threat
Despite the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) recent ban on specific uses of chrysotile asbestos, a significant public health threat prevails for two reasons. 

Latency: Asbestos-related cancer and diseases can take decades to appear.
Unlike illnesses with immediate or short-term symptoms, asbestos-related diseases can take 20-50 or more years to manifest. This is known as the latency of asbestos, and it can create a deceptive sense of security for workers and family members exposed to asbestos long ago.

Exposed workers might feel healthy for many years, unknowingly harboring damage to tissues in their lungs or abdomen. When symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain, or persistent cough appear years later, the asbestos has already been doing its damage, and diseases have progressed to a later stage, making treatment more challenging.

Persistence: Nearly every building constructed before the mid-1980s contained asbestos products or building materials of some kind, and it lingers in many aging structures. 

Not all asbestos laws require immediate removal, just that you use a licensed asbestos abatement company following safety regulations. Apart from wear and tear, disturbing these materials during renovations, repairs, or demolition activities can release fibers into the air, posing a serious health risk to unsuspecting workers, occupants and anyone else nearby. 

Both the latency and persistence of asbestos in our built environment create a modern-day threat that demands ongoing awareness and proactive safety measures.

A Silent Killer: The Devastating Health Effects of Asbestos
The most well-known asbestos disease is mesothelioma, a cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, chest, or abdomen. This aggressive cancer develops when microscopic particles become lodged in delicate tissues, triggering a chronic inflammatory response that can mutate healthy cells into cancerous ones. 

Tragically, there is no cure for mesothelioma, and the prognosis for patients is often poor. Treatment options focus on managing symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain, and fatigue, aiming to improve quality of life and extend survival time. 

Asbestos is also the highest occupational risk factor for lung cancer.
Breathing asbestos fibers causes other respiratory diseases like asbestosis and pleural thickening around the lungs. In fact, while known as the cause of most cases of mesothelioma, asbestos actually causes far more cases of lung cancer. 

In fact, researchers say that ‘asbestos exposure is the most important cause of mortality from on-the-job lung cancer.’ They recommend that former asbestos workers and their household members who are currently 50 and older should be screened for asbestos scarring.

Asbestos increases the carcinogenicity of tobacco smoke. Asbestos fibers also interact with chemicals in cigarette smoke to greatly increase the likelihood of lung cancer. Smokers are ten times more likely to develop lung cancer, but smokers exposed to asbestos are fifty times more likely to develop it than people exposed to neither.

Other forms of asbestos-related cancer may develop. Asbestos fibers can also be swallowed from the air into the digestive system. Many scientific studies have also linked asbestos exposure to throat, stomach, colorectal and ovarian cancers.

The Crucial Role of Testing and Awareness

The Researchscape study highlights the critical need for increased awareness and routine testing for asbestos exposure. 

Just 8% of Americans undergo regular testing, leaving most of the population unaware of whether damage is occurring. This creates a dangerous blind spot, allowing asbestos-related diseases to progress undetected for years. 

Early detection is paramount in managing asbestos illnesses. Catching a cancer in its earlier stages allows for more aggressive treatment options, potentially including surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Early intervention also helps reduce the disease's progression and improve a patient's quality of life. 

Regular asbestos testing for workers and families exposed to asbestos in the past can help prevent disease from progressing undetected.
Routine testing, particularly for individuals who may have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace or at home, can be a life-saving measure. A simple lung function test or chest X-ray can provide valuable insights into potential lung damage. Early diagnosis helps with preventative measures to slow disease progression and improve treatment outcomes. 

Furthermore, increased awareness empowers individuals to take control of their health. Understanding the signs and symptoms of asbestos-related illnesses, such as persistent cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain, can prompt them to seek medical attention promptly. 

By prioritizing education, encouraging regular testing, and recognizing the early warning signs, we can significantly improve the chances of successful treatment and a better prognosis for those affected by asbestos exposure.

Beyond the Workplace: Protecting Loved Ones
The issue of secondhand exposure underscores the importance of education and preventative measures for both workers and their families. Workers in high-risk industries should be aware of the potential hazards they carry home and encourage asbestos screening by their former or current household members.

Simple practices, such as establishing a dedicated "work" wardrobe that changes outside the home and showering before contact with family members, can significantly reduce the risk of secondary exposure. 

Open communication is also key. Workers can educate their families on the potential dangers of asbestos exposure from work clothing or activity that can release asbestos fibers. By prioritizing screening and prevention, families can reinforce ongoing efforts to prevent asbestos exposure and reduce its devastating effects.

A Legacy of Neglect: The Troubled History of Asbestos
The widespread presence of asbestos today is a consequence of a long and troubled history. While the dangers of asbestos were known as early as the 1930s, the asbestos industry actively suppressed this information throughout the 20th century. 

The truth about asbestos came to light not because its profiteers were forthcoming, but through health researchers like Dr. Irving Selikoff, labor leaders like Tony Mazzochi, and dogged investigative journalist Paul Brodeur.

Dr. Selikoff had been warning that the dangers of asbestos were being under-estimated, and his work linking asbestos to lung disease led to its asbestos regulation worldwide.

Their fight led to regulations like mandatory personal protective equipment (PPE), exposure limits, and regular testing for workers – with asbestos becoming the first substance regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

A Continuing Struggle: The Fight for a Safer Future
The recent EPA ban on certain asbestos uses marks a significant step forward, but is just a victory in a long, ongoing war. Globally, the fight for a safer future continues.

Asbestos remains legal in many countries, leaving workers abroad laboring under the shadow of this silent killer. Even in the United States, the legacy of past use presents a persistent challenge. 

ACMs are still present in numerous buildings nationwide, and construction, demolition, renovation, and abatement workers handling these materials face a high risk of exposure unless proper safety protocols are strictly enforced. 

The general public may be unknowingly exposed during DIY projects or while residing in older buildings. These ongoing threats necessitate continued vigilance, stricter regulations, and a relentless pursuit of complete asbestos eradication to safeguard future generations from this preventable health hazard.

The Bottom Line: Remaining Vigilant Amid a Persistent Threat
If you worked in a high-risk occupation, the threat of asbestos exposure doesn’t disappear when you retire. Getting tested is crucial if you ever worked in a job where asbestos was present. 

The same is true for family members who may have been unknowingly exposed, especially those who spent time around or washed dusty work clothing. Early detection can make a life-or-death difference, and a simple X-ray can show asbestos scarring.

Asbestos safety demands lifelong vigilance, and hopefully the Researchscape study can help refresh the public’s awareness of the ongoing threat posed by asbestos. By raising awareness, encouraging testing, and implementing stricter regulations, we can protect ourselves, our families, and future generations from the dangers of this insidious material.

Justinian C. Lane, Esq. is an authority on asbestos and its long and complicated history. After losing his father and grandparents to asbestos-related cancers, Justinian dedicated his law practice to helping workers and families exposed to asbestos. He is completing a book on the history of industrial asbestos, and lessons it offers for confronting today's challenges.

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