Many plumbers have been exposed to asbestos in the past, and some continue to be exposed to this toxic substance today. These workers carry a moderate risk of developing an asbestos-related disease, such as mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma and Plumbers Explained
Being a plumber is a relatively common occupation. In 2011, there were almost 350,000 plumbers employed in the United States. Plumbers work alongside millwrights, maintenance workers, mechanics, HVAC mechanics, electricians, construction laborers, boilermakers and building inspectors. States with the highest percentage of plumbers include Illinois, Florida, New York, California and Texas.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, plumbers have the same responsibilities as steam and pipefitters. Their job description involves the installation and repairing of various types of pipes, including those that carry liquids and gases, such as steam and water. Plumbers often need to carry heavy items, work in enclosed spaces and climb onto ladders to reach the pipes.
Plumbers are an integral part of construction teams, working alongside steam and pipefitters on industrial projects, such as constructing large buildings or high rises. They may build plumbing pipes in newer structures, or they may be responsible for fixing an older pipe that has been insulated with asbestos. These older pipes have friable insulation, causing asbestos fibers to be airborne—often at the touch.
Other plumbers have their own businesses. They receive calls from companies and homeowners regarding plumbing leaks or blockages. These plumbers usually work in environments where they are asked to install new appliances that are insulated with asbestos. Dishwashers, laundry machines and garbage disposals are high-risk areas that a plumber might become exposed to asbestos.
More than 5.3 miles of copper piping has been laid down since 1963. As a result, copper pipes are among the most common types of tubing used in the plumbing industry. Each year, about a billion feet of copper piping is laid down. These numbers are staggering and installing each pipe entails the possible exposure of plumbers to hazardous materials, such as asbestos.
Plumbers are a necessary part of the construction process in the U.S., but it is an area of work that exposes these workers to dangerous levels of asbestos. There is a large number of asbestos-containing items used and repaired by plumbers. Many of these items were made in factories between the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s.
Products That Expose Plumbers to Asbestos
Plumbers are exposed to asbestos every day by working in these areas of plumbing:
- Thermal Insulation. This type of insulation requires wrapping pipes so the heat or cold in them can remain at the desired temperatures. Plumbers also put in boilers, ducts, tanks and pipes that were made prior to the relative ban on asbestos. These products were generally made with asbestos-containing insulation.
- Repairing materials. Plumbers must use products that were created prior to the 1980s, many of which contained asbestos, to repair certain materials. This includes welding rods, pipe coating, gaskets, valves, pipe block, cement and joint compounds used to put together plumbing systems.
Exposure to Asbestos
Plumbers are exposed nearly every day to asbestos-containing products. They must use saws, cutters and paper made from asbestos to attach materials to other pipes. They also use drills to make holes in asbestos-containing products. This risks inhalation of asbestos during the drilling process.
Once the asbestos fibers are ingested or inhaled, they tend to stick inside the body and cause inflammation of the linings of the lung and abdominal tissue. They can also embed themselves in the lining around the heart and in the male testes, leading to various types of cancers. Besides mesothelioma cancer, plumbers can get other asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis and pulmonary fibrosis. These conditions compromise the worker’s respiratory system, resulting in chronic coughs, chest pain and weight loss—particularly if cancer is present.
One common area that plumbers became exposed to asbestos is during the insulation of ducts, tanks, boilers and pipes. Pipes are by far the area where plumbers are exposed to asbestos the most. These pipes must be measured and cut to specific sizes to fit within existing piping. This exposes the plumbers to asbestos.
Steamfitters, pipefitters and plumbers also deal with asbestos whenever they handle gaskets, valves and pumps that were made using asbestos. Valves and pumps are installed to pressurize the system and circulate liquids through the pipes. These valves and pumps may be made using asbestos. As these products eventually wear out, plumbers are hired to replace them. Whenever the plumber needs to replace or remove these products, they release fibers of asbestos that are then inhaled or ingested.
Research on Asbestos and Plumbers
According to a study published in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene in 2007, statistics show that there is a high risk of exposure to asbestos among several classifications of maintenance workers, including plumbers. These workers often disturb areas containing asbestos and inhale the dust created as part of their job. Plumbers who work in areas that were thought to have been stripped of asbestos-containing insulation generally still have asbestos fibers in the area, so this doesn’t prevent a plumber from inhaling asbestos.
The amount of asbestos exposure among plumbers working in industrial areas was measured in the study using a personal passive sampler given to them by the Health and Safety laboratory. The results of the study showed that 62% of workers were exposed to asbestos to a significant degree in the first round of the study, and 58% of workers were exposed to asbestos in the second round of the study. It is estimated that the risk in one’s lifetime of death due to an asbestos-related cancer for 2-4 decades is about 68 cases per 100,000 people.
An additional study was done on more than 7,000 workers and retired plumbers from the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters in California. A total of 16 former or current plumbers have actually died from mesothelioma between 1960 and 1979.
Lawsuits Regarding Asbestos and its Complications
There have been many multi-million dollar lawsuits filed against companies that knowingly exposed their employees to asbestos after it was found to be dangerous. If you are or were a plumber and believe you have been exposed to asbestos, you should be regularly screened for asbestos-related diseases.
If you develop these diseases, you may be entitled to compensation from the company that is responsible for exposing you to asbestos-containing products.