The recognition of asbestos as a dangerous substance is not new. Records show that for centuries, individuals have recognized the hazards of working with or around asbestos. Even as far back as Roman times, historian Pliny the Elder pointed out that slaves who worked in the asbestos mines were always sick or died at a very young age, indicating that asbestos may have been the culprit. Pliny was so sure that asbestos was the cause that he advised others not to hire slaves who had once worked in the mines.
Modern-Day Exposure to Asbestos
The Industrial Revolution brought millions of individuals to factories, where they often worked long hours in less than ideal situations. People were helping build just about everything, from cars and other machinery to construction materials. Some industries caused few health-related problems while others seriously affected the health of employees.
By the late 19th century, doctors were already making a connection between exposure to asbestos and pulmonary diseases. In 1906, the first documented case of asbestos-related disease was confirmed. Just a few decades later, doctors came up with the name "asbestosis" for those diseases that were thought to be caused by inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers.
At that time, doctors and research scientists were not yet aware that asbestos-related diseases could lie undetected for as long as 40 to 50 years. So, the first influx of cases really didn't begin to occur until the 1920s. What doctors also didn't know was that the worst was yet to come.
Asbestos Exposure and World War II
In the late 1930s, American was gearing up to help with the war overseas, one they'd soon be entrenched in as well. World War II brought massive amounts of workers into factories and shipyards, all manufacturing and repairing items and vessels for use in the war effort.
Because the war often required that things move quickly, safety standards in factories and yards were less than ample. Shipbuilders, in particular, were exposed to high levels of toxic materials, including asbestos. Because of its heat-resistant qualities, asbestos was used extensively in ships. When these vessels needed repair, shipyard workers often encountered large amounts of damaged asbestos. This damaged or "friable" asbestos crumbled easily and released millions of fibers into the air, which were ultimately inhaled by those working directly with the asbestos or in the vicinity of the dangerous material, often in small, closed spaces with little ventilation.
Because if usually takes decades for asbestos-related diseases to develop, doctors began seeing a huge increase in cases of diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma in the 1980s and 90s, not only in the U.S. but also in other countries that supported a huge shipbuilding effort during the war years. Those who worked in shipyards during the Korean War followed closely behind, with more cases surfacing around the turn of the 21st century.
Other Industries Affected by Asbestos
While shipbuilders have been among the hardest hit, workers in myriad other industries have also been affected by the extensive use of asbestos in the first 70 years of the 20th century.
As in shipyards, other industries were virtual breeding grounds for asbestos-related diseases and little or no precautions were taken to protect workers, even though there's proof that business owners and executives would often cover-up their knowledge of the dangers of asbestos. Those who have been most affected by diseases such as pleural mesothelioma include:
- Mechanics and other automotive repair personnel
- Power plant workers
- Railroad employees
- Construction workers/contractors
- Steel mill employees
- Oil refinery workers
- Firefighters and other emergency responders
- Asbestos product manufacturers
However, not only those who worked in factories, mines, and shipyards were exposed to asbestos. Many cases of "residential" exposure have been reported by do-it-yourselfers who worked with asbestos-containing products when building or refurbishing a home. Though these individuals weren't exposed on a daily basis, they have proven that no amount of exposure to asbestos is acceptable.
Asbestos Exposure Today
Thankfully, due to bans and warnings placed on asbestos products during the last 30 years, exposure to asbestos fibers is not as commonplace and, eventually, fewer cases of asbestos-related diseases will be reported on an annual basis.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of asbestos hazards still present. You'll find them in places like old buildings and imported automobile brakes manufactured in countries where asbestos is not banned. Unfortunately, many individuals continue to be at risk for asbestos exposure.
Those who were involved in the rescue, recovery, and clean-up efforts at the World Trade Center after September 11th, 2001 represent a new breed of individuals at high risk for asbestos-related diseases. Some have already been diagnosed with lung cancers, asbestosis, and mesothelioma, and a handful have already succumbed to the diseases. Their illnesses have also demonstrated that in cases of intense exposure, asbestos can attack sooner rather than later. An early diagnosis offers the best chance to find a succesful mesothelioma treatment.
- O'Reilly, K.M., McLaughlin, A.M., Beckett, W.S., and Sime, P.J. Asbestos-related Lung Disease. American Family Physician. 2007 March. Vol. 75 (5), pp. 683-8
- Sullivan, P. Vermiculite, Respiratory Disease, and Asbestos Exposure in Libby, Montana: Update of a Cohort Mortality Study. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2007 April. Vol.115 (4), pp. 579-585.
- National Cancer Institute. Asbestos Exposure: Questions and Answers. National Cancer Institute FactSheet. 2007 February.
Last modified: December 24, 2010.