Asbestos is a mineral that was commonly mined and used in the U.S. from the late 1800s until the late 1970s. The material was used most widely in industrial worksites to help prevent fires. As a product, asbestos is heat and chemical resistant and does not conduct electricity, meaning it was a perfect solution for cheap, durable insulation in construction, manufacturing and power plants.
History of Asbestos Use in American Worksites
Chrysotile asbestos was the most common type used in the U.S. This mineral has long fibers that, once inhaled, can pierce the lining of the lung (pleura) or abdomen (peritoneal), and cause a cancer called mesothelioma.
Asbestos was used in World War II for machinery, ships and equipment, but after the war, it soon made its way into building and construction industries. Asbestos served as an ideal material to guard against fire and heat, which also made it an excellent component for power plants, shipyards, steel mills, oil refineries and aluminum plants.
Many workers unknowingly inhaled asbestos on a daily basis. Miners, plumbers, carpenters, oil refinery workers and many others were exposed to airborne asbestos fibers within their workplaces. Not only was this dangerous for the workers themselves, but they would also carry fibers home on their clothing where members of the family could inhale them.
Regulating Asbestos in the Workplace
In 1970, the Clean Air Act and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that asbestos was a ‘hazardous air pollutant.’ Since then, laws have become tighter on asbestos products in an attempt to minimize their impact. By 1983, the EPA ruled that all school buildings must be free of asbestos-containing materials, though this took years to come into play.
In 1989, the EPA filed a final rule which banned the manufacturing, importing, processing and distributing of asbestos, which included:
- Asbestos-containing flooring and roofing
- Pipeline wrap
- Asbestos cement, corrugated and flat sheet
- Vinyl asbestos floor tiles
- Asbestos clothing
- Asbestos-containing gaskets
- Transmission components
- Asbestos-cement pipes, commercial and corrugated paper
- Asbestos-containing roll board and millboard
- Roof and non-roof coatings containing asbestos
Unfortunately, a new ruling in 1991 overturned the EPA’s decision due to a lack of evidence.
Asbestos is no longer a viable material to use, but it can still occur in old buildings. Whenever an older building is to be renovated or demolished, asbestos professionals who are trained in the field must be called in to remove the asbestos and dispose of it safely.
Despite this, it’s shocking how many industries still use asbestos regularly. Whether on old building sites or underground transport links, remnants of asbestos are still ingrained into the U.S. infrastructure. This puts thousands of workers at risk every day, from plumbers and chemical technicians to those working in various forms of restoration.
Top Worksites Known for Asbestos Exposure
High-risk worksites span various industries, as asbestos was used so extensively and for so long.
Tradesmen and industrial workers were particularly in danger of asbestos exposure, including:
- Crane operators
- Cement plant workers
- Railroad workers
- Drywall tapers
Perhaps the worst 5 industries for toxic levels of asbestos exposure were:
Shipbuilding: Almost 30% of mesothelioma lawsuits come from shipyard workers. Asbestos was commonly used to insulate the walls of ships. Those working in the construction, repair and demolition of vessels would experience the most prolonged exposure.
Steel Mills: Many skilled laborers were employed in steel mills, including pipefitters, machinist, boilermakers, blacksmiths, welders and conductors. Unfortunately, the vast majority would have been exposed to asbestos on site. Machinery and equipment were known to use asbestos as insulation. Protective clothing given to the workers was also woven with toxic asbestos to avoid burns.
Chemical Plants: As a heat and chemical resistant material, asbestos was commonly found within chemical plants to protect from fires and burns. Workers were even given masks which contained asbestos, meaning the particles would be directly transported into the lungs.
Aluminum Plants: The process of making aluminum requires extreme temperatures. Asbestos was commonly used to insulate the pots, and when they were not performing up to standard, workers would dig out the old asbestos and allow the fibers to become airborne.
Oil Refineries: These extensive facilities often required workers to build, maintain and repair on site, which meant that a lot of dust lingered in the air. Many of the pieces of equipment used in oil refineries contained asbestos to be heat and fireproof. Cutting, sawing and sanding were the most notorious jobs for asbestos-exposure.
One particular vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, remains one of the most notorious incidents of asbestos exposure in the U.S.
W.R. Grace and Co.’s mine was in business from the 1920s until 1990, and as of 2006, at least 200 people had died from asbestos exposure, and more than 1,000 were ill.
With new cases being diagnosed each year, it is still impossible to know the extent of the damage. Workers in the Libby mine were subject to high levels of asbestos in the air, inhaling clouds of dust day after day that contained the highly toxic material.
Worksites Still at Risk Today
While asbestos is no longer used in new construction, manufacturing or trade industries today, the risk of exposure exists for those who work in demolition, renovation or remediation industries.
Many older buildings still contain asbestos, so whenever there is a demolition, specific standards must be obtained before the destruction can go ahead. Even so, it’s essential that workers wear overalls and cover their shoes to avoid taking fibers with them after leaving the site. When older buildings are torn down, the asbestos in the walls crumbles and millions of toxic fibers become dispersed in the air.
Renovations and Retrofits
Renovations are slightly more challenging to monitor, as a range of different tradespeople will be required for any given project. Boiler workers must take care when removing old boiler units, and these were historically insulated with asbestos. Carpenters are also at risk of working in dusty environments that may contain asbestos, and drill press operators can be at risk when drilling into the walls of historic buildings.
There is no telling just how much asbestos remains in the U.S., but many efforts are being made to reduce leftover asbestos and dispose of it safely.
First Responders and 9/11
It has been reported that many of the first responders during 9/11 have developed mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure in the air on that fateful day, and even today the death toll from this tragic event is rising as the result of toxic dust.
Dr. Raja Flores, Chief of Thoracic Surgery at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York said:
“In 15 to 20 years, we are going to see a serious health issue in New York. We haven’t seen the tip of the iceberg yet”.
The asbestos from 9/11 contaminated a large area of the city, and many residents are now struggling with asbestos-related diseases.
Taking Action and Seeking Compensation
Today, the law requires employers to adhere to health and safety regulations that provide proper equipment and training to deal with asbestos. For workers who have unfortunately developed mesothelioma through employment, compensation is available. While this, of course, cannot undo the wrong caused by negligent employers, compensation can help towards medical treatment to relieve symptoms and prolong life, as well as loss-of-earnings.
It is essential that patients seek the help of a mesothelioma lawyer to get the best results. An injury lawsuit can be filed up to 3 years after diagnosis, and families can file a wrongful injury lawsuit up to 3 years after death—depending on the state. There is continued research in the realm of mesothelioma, and one day doctors hope to have a cure for this rare and complex cancer.
If you are a veteran who has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you have legal rights to compensation. Contact our VA-Accredited Claims Agents today to start your claim.