Mesothelioma in Insulators

Quick Summary

Many insulators were exposed to asbestos when this material was used to make houses, insulate boilers and construct large buildings. Unfortunately, many of today’s insulators are still being exposed to asbestos, as there are plenty of older homes and businesses that need remodeling and have asbestos as part of their insulation.

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Mesothelioma and Insulators Explained

In 2010, the National Employment Statistics indicated that there were more than 50,000 insulators employed in different types of factories and home sites. Insulators work alongside sheet metal workers, roofers, stucco masons, plasterers, drywall laborers, ceiling tile laborers, construction workers and carpenters.

The risk of asbestos-related diseases is considered “moderate” for insulators. This means that they have a chance of getting mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, but their risk is not as high as in other occupations. Insulators with the highest risk of asbestos-related illnesses are those working in Illinois, Florida, New York, California and Texas.

An insulator’s job involves working in several areas of construction and remodeling. They are hired to replace or install materials used to insulate buildings so that the temperature can be maintained at a consistent level. Insulators typically work in industrial and residential settings. However, in some cases, they work on ships or other forms of transportation. Many of these workplaces have a great deal of asbestos exposure due to the asbestos-containing materials they work around on a daily basis.

Insulation workers are involved in just about every aspect of the insulating process. They help determine how much insulation is needed, as well as the type of insulation necessary to heat and cool the building structure. In addition, they determine how the insulation is going to be laid out at the work site. This requires them to use asbestos-containing insulation to shape materials.

Insulation workers are also responsible for cutting and measuring insulation, installing sheet metal covering insulated pipes and keeping the insulation from breaking down under adverse weather conditions. They use scissors, knives, hand saws and tape measures to cut and measure insulation before placing it in the walls of the buildings. They also help to finish or seal insulation or insulated surfaces. They use asphalt mastic, cement, tape, sealants and canvas strips to gain access to the insulation. The use of these materials results in asbestos fibers becoming airborne, where they can be ingested or inhaled, leading to various types of health conditions.

Insulation is cheap and it lessens the cost of cooling and heating a building by up to 40%. Insulation can also be used for the reduction of sound and to save energy. Insulation is the most cost effective way of reducing the greenhouse emissions and the use of energy needed to heat or cool homes and businesses.

In today’s time, insulation has many different benefits. Unfortunately, this process unnecessarily exposed insulators to asbestos, particularly those who worked in buildings made in the 1930s through the 1970s. Asbestos is toxic to humans and was only used because it was inexpensive and fireproof. During that era, just about all insulation products contained asbestos. Insulators in today’s time continue to be exposed to asbestos, especially those working in homes and buildings that were built prior to the early 1980s.

Where Can Asbestos Be Found?

Asbestos can be found in many places that insulators have to work. It is most commonly found in roofs, walls, pipes, floor tiles, ceiling tiles and attics.

Some additional areas of high insulation use include the following:

  • Pipes.  Pipe insulation is a type of insulation wrapped around various types of pipes in buildings. It was particularly used in the shipbuilding industry. Asbestos has not yet completely removed in these areas, so workers continue to be exposed.
  • Attics.  Many attics are insulated with insulation containing asbestos. One common insulation type used in attics includes Zonolite. It was used as a way of keeping attics cool.
  • Block.  Block insulation also exposed insulators to asbestos. The asbestos could be found in the concrete blocks used in the foundations of apartments and homes.
  • Spray-Applied Asbestos.  This is a cheap way of insulating homes and buildings in areas such as ceilings, walls and attics. One of the most common additives used in spray-applied insulation was asbestos. Its use continued until 1990, when it was banned for use in this type of insulation.
  • Walls.  Insulation was used as a cheap and effective way to keep buildings and homes cool in summer and warm in winter. Most wall insulation is made from asbestos, which is now known to be highly toxic.
  • Valve insulation Jackets.  This was the type of insulation used to insulate expansion joints, pipe work, flanges, boilers and other equipment that was considered to be too sensitive to extremes in temperature. This type of insulation contained asbestos and was used in both residential and manufacturing industries.

Insulator Exposure to Asbestos

Asbestos has been unnecessarily exposing insulators to its toxic effects since the early 1900s. It was used in manufacturing facilities, cars, ships, buildings and homes. Nearly all of the items these workers were maintaining or constructing contained asbestos. This meant that many insulators inhaled or ingested asbestos dust on a daily basis for many years at a time. Because asbestos fibers are needle-shaped and light, once inhaled or ingested, the fibers are unable to be coughed out. This is what causes asbestos-related illnesses, including mesothelioma.

For example, when an insulator needed to insulate a steam pipe, the worker cut out and measured pieces of insulation so that it was the right length to cover the pipe. The insulation then needed to be threaded along a pipe, causing asbestos fibers to become airborne. They could then be ingested or inhaled by the worker.

To make matters worse, the insulation needed to be held in place by asbestos-containing adhesives, tape, wire or staples. This further exposed the insulators to asbestos. Sometimes wraps are made to cover the insulated areas, and these also contain asbestos.

When pipes were insulated with asbestos, it often was not replaced when it became crumbly or broken down. This created a hazard for those insulators tasked with the job of changing the insulation on pipes. They inhaled asbestos as a part of this process and the end result for many was the development of mesothelioma cancer and other diseases related to asbestos exposure.

Research has been done on the subject of asbestos inhalation and the diseases it has caused. One study, published in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine looked at insulators working in Belfast, Northern Ireland during 1940. They found a significant increase in the number of deaths due to mesothelioma among this population. Many insulation workers were in this industry for over 3 decades.

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Asbestos Lawsuits

There have been asbestos-related lawsuits filed on the behalf of workers exposed to asbestos and their families. This is because asbestos is toxic and causes cancer of the lungs. Manufacturers of this insulation knew that their products were hazardous to the health of their employees, yet they still allowed its use.

If you were an insulator working in areas containing high amounts of asbestos, you need to be screened for mesothelioma, even if your exposure was many years ago. The lag time between exposure to asbestos and developing an asbestos-related illness can be as long as 50 years.

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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