Mesothelioma: A Risk to Occupations Everywhere and What You Need to Know
Mesothelioma is a threat to employees everywhere, and it starts with asbestos exposure.
- By Colin Ruggiero
- Jan 27, 2020
With any occupation, there are risks and challenges. However, some may be more prevalent than others or involve stark, physical threats. Some jobs are noticeably more labor-intensive than others, such as industrial, manufacturing, and blue-collar positions facing demanding labor. Employees in these industries may also endure environmental and circumstantial dangers.
Health and safety for workers have been drastically improved over the years with reforms and codes to prevent diseases and accidents. Organizations like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provide detailed information for protecting workers’ rights, with a variety of topics and sectors.
While there are a number of threats to worker safety and health on the job, one is longstanding, cancerous, and harmful for a number of reasons: asbestos exposure.
Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral and an active ingredient in manufacturing products. Many products have a limited use of one percent, but the substance can still present a threat to anyone who comes in contact. Though asbestos is not as prevalent in products today, many workers are still vulnerable to exposure through second and third-wave exposure. Asbestos is considered friable, and if disturbed, its small fibers have the ability to enter the body, anchoring themselves into internal organs. Over time, the fibers will spur tumors, developing into a nearly always fatal cancer: mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is uncommon, but it’s not unheard of. Located in the lungs, heart, or abdomen, with rarer cases in the lining of the testicles, it’s not genetic or biological, but most often triggered by exposure to asbestos. Patients are often not diagnosed after initial exposure, partly because symptoms are misdiagnosed for less severe illnesses like pneumonia or mistakenly considered as board lung cancer.
According to the National Organization of Rare Disorders (NORD), approximately 70 to 80 percent of cases of mesothelioma result from exposure to asbestos. More often than not, symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until up to 30 to 50 years after initial exposure to asbestos given the disease’s long latency period. The later the stage of this cancer, the more difficult it is to treat.
Construction workers, firefighters, industrial workers, machine operators, and agricultural workers all face potential exposure to asbestos. The products they employ or the buildings they are in may contain asbestos. Renovation, repair, improper ventilation and handling, disintegration, and drilling can uncover asbestos and may lead to the life-threatening consequences previously mentioned.
Rules and Regulations for Asbestos
The E.P.A. provides a list of asbestos laws that should be in effect for companies who work with this carcinogen. However, the agency was subject to criticism in April when the New York Times reported the E.P.A.’s refusal to ban asbestos permanently, against government scientists’ pressures. Rather, they only placed restrictions, despite experts’ call for a “ban all new uses of asbestos because the extreme harm from this chemical substance outweighs any benefit—and because there are adequate alternatives to asbestos.”
In November of 2019, the Trump administration was under fire due to “unlawfully exclud[ing] millions of tons of some of the most dangerous materials in public use from a safety review.” This safety review is necessary to ensure the health and safety of the public. According to one ABC News article, however, the E.P.A. under Trump’s rule “sought to limit the review to products still being manufactured.” Reviews for asbestos-containing products would have been drastically cut, “gauging the risks from just a few hundred tons...that are imported annually [and] excluding...the estimated 8.9 million tons...of asbestos-containing products” from 1970 to 2016.
Many people do not display many symptoms of mesothelioma, and the tumor can be difficult to see on X-ray examination. However, if a mesothelioma tumor is present in the lungs, symptoms may include shortness of breath or difficulty breathing (dyspnea), chest pain, or a chronic cough.
If present near the stomach, symptoms may include unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and low levels of circulating red blood cells.
Other general symptoms of the disease may include fever, weakness, night sweats, unexplained weight loss, and general feeling of ill health (malaise).
Even after proving that exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma and other deadly diseases, the United States has still not placed a full ban on the mineral. The risks associated with exposure will always outweigh the convenience of utilizing asbestos or ignoring mandated reviews.
To prevent exposure, workers need to remember that no amount of asbestos exposure is safe. Enforcing asbestos management is critical to not only the safety of workers but also the public as well. Employees should wear protective respiratory gear to block inhalation, and they should regularly execute air tests. If asbestos is present, abatement should be done by a professional. Unfortunately, asbestos exposure is widespread in the workplace compared to other environments. This doesn’t mean workers can’t be equipped to take the initiative in prevention.
Asbestos may one day be eliminated, and that would be transformative for the wellbeing of workers in many industries. Yet, since it remains a potential threat for employees, the best practice is to understand the environment and to keep up with codes and laws. These regulations should be heavily monitored and enforced. The last thing workers should have to worry about is their health.