Mesothelioma in Boilermakers

Quick Summary

Boilermakers are at a high risk of developing asbestos-related conditions, such as mesothelioma. This is because their job includes being responsible for building boilers, which are heating units used to provide heat to buildings and ships.

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Boilermakers and Mesothelioma Explained

Boilermakers that build boilers for ships are especially susceptible to asbestos exposure because many older ships are outfitted with insulation made from asbestos. When the asbestos-containing insulation breaks down over time, it results in asbestos particles floating into the air where anyone working on the ship can inhale or ingest the fibers.

Boilermakers work with asbestos when they use insulated pipes to connect the boilers to the heat transfer systems. These workers were unknowingly exposed to asbestos toxicity by the thousands, including those boilermakers working in the civilian industry on boilers for buildings, and boilermakers who worked as part of their military service building boilers for ships and submarines.

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The History of Boilermakers

Boilermakers have been around for the last century or so and are responsible for building and installing pressure and heating containers, vats used in heating and boilers themselves. Not only do boilermakers build these types of structures, but they must also maintain and repair boiler structures that have broken down or needing replacement.

These older boilers were often insulated with asbestos-containing material and connected to pipes that were insulated with asbestos. This was previously believed to be a safe, light-weight source of preventing heat from escaping from these structures.

Boilermakers are often responsible for reading blueprints at construction sites where asbestos was being used and are required to update the foundations for boilers. They also test boilers for defects and cracks, further exposing them to asbestos. Boilermakers were and still are responsible for assisting crane operators as they remove boilers from buildings that are being demolished.

While boilers have been around for a long time, the manufacturers of boilers and related equipment began to use asbestos as part of the insulation of these structures as early as the 1920s. Asbestos was considered to be superior to other forms of insulation because it was cheap and more effecting in keeping boilers fireproof and the heat inside the boilers.

Several manufacturers of boilers used asbestos extensively, including the following companies:

  • Combustion Engineering
  • Kewanee Manufacturing Company
  • Foster Wheeler
  • Babcock and Wilcox

Many other boiler manufacturing companies also used asbestos as part of the making and repairing of boilers. This exposed their boilermakers to asbestos, as they were closely working with this material and breathing in or ingesting the particles of asbestos on a daily basis.

Asbestos was used in many aspects of making boilers. It was used, for example in pipe making, in which asbestos blankets were used to wrap the pipes. Flooring tiles and wall-making materials also contained asbestos, and boilermakers working on construction sites were exposed to asbestos while building boilers at the instruction sites. Doors and joints used in the construction of buildings were also sealed with gaskets that were made with asbestos.

Because of the necessity of working with the insulation used in the making of boilers, boilermakers were often exposed to airborne particles of asbestos. This exposure typically occurred over a long period of time and, after years of working in the industry, boilermakers had plenty of opportunity to inhale asbestos fibers.

Asbestos-related illnesses, including mesothelioma, didn’t show up right away and there was a gap between the asbestos exposure and the development of an asbestos-related illnesses. It often takes 20 to 50 years between the initial exposure to asbestos and the development of mesothelioma or asbestosis, which is a lung condition caused by inhaling asbestos particles.

Boilermakers were at an especially high risk for inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers because, as part of their job, they were required to hammer and/or file the rough areas on the edges of the boilers, which contained asbestos in their construction materials. The act of hammering and filing caused the asbestos fibers to become airborne, where they could be breathed in or swallowed. Boilermakers work in confined spaces with little room for ventilation, making it even riskier to work with asbestos-containing products, such as boilers and pipes connecting the heating systems.

Boilers can function for more than 30 years when kept well-maintained. There are still older boilers in existence that need some kind of repair work and maintenance. Some older boilers become cracked and need repaired or replaced insulation, which often contains asbestos. This unnecessarily exposes boilermakers to asbestos as part of their everyday job duties.

Common Diseases Among Boilermakers

It wasn’t known initially that asbestos was dangerous to boilermakers. The first signs of asbestos being toxic occurred in the 1930s; however, asbestos use was continued as an insulating material until the middle of the 1970s, when it was replaced by less toxic insulating materials.

It was during this time that there seemed to be more boilermakers coming down with various lung diseases, including asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. Of these, both mesothelioma and lung cancer are the most severe and both are believed to be related to occupational exposure to asbestos.

Many boilermakers came down with mesothelioma. This is a severe type of cancer that affects the lining of various body tissues, including the lining of the lungs, the lining of the heart and the lining of the abdominal tissue. The most common type of mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma, which occurs when a boilermaker has worked long enough in the industry to inhale asbestos particles as part of their duties.

Other boilermakers developed asbestos-related lung cancer. This was especially true of boilermakers who also smoked. Both smoke and asbestos work together to result in the development of lung cancer, similar to lung cancer found in people who smoke but are not exposed to asbestos. It appears, though, that the addition of asbestos increased the risk of developing lung cancer.

Asbestosis is another condition caused by exposure to asbestos. This is a chronic lung disease that results in shortness of breath and coughing due to asbestos fibers lodged into the tissue of the lungs. While it is not cancerous, it does cause a great deal of disability and boilermakers are at a greater risk of developing asbestosis because of their employment.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

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