Mesothelioma is a rare but deadly form of cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs and most commonly develops because of exposure to asbestos. High levels of repeated exposure that can occur on a jobsite can be quite dangerous and lead to severe health complications such as mesothelioma.
Even though many uses of this substance have been outlawed by the EPA and other health agencies around the world, some people are still at risk of exposure—especially those who encounter it on the job. Here is a look at what types of workers are most likely to inhale asbestos, how this substance plays a role in mesothelioma, and what to do if you think you’re at risk for the disease.
Which jobs can lead to mesothelioma?
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the positions listed below have been associated with exposure to asbestos that can contribute to the development of melanoma.
- Bulldozer operators
- Chemical technologists
- Construction workers
- Crane operators
- Drill press operators
- Electricity linemen
- Engineers (aerospace, civil, electrical, mechanical, operating, sales, stationary)
- Forge workers
- Freight handlers
- Grinding machine operators
- Home inspectors
- Home appliance Installers
- HVAC workers
- Industrial plant workers
- Iron workers
- Masonry workers
- Mechanics (garage, air, auto, heavy machinery)
- Merchant marines
- Metal lathers
- Mixing operators
- Oil refinery personnel
- Power plant personnel
- Railroad workers
- Road machine operators
- Sailors and deckhands
- Sheet metal workers
- Shipyard workers
- Telephone repairmen
- Textile operators
- Tool makers
What role does asbestos play in mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that attacks the thin lining of the body’s organs, known as the mesothelium. Mesothelium is present across most of the body, but when mesothelioma occurs, it most frequently forms in the lining of the lungs.
There are sometimes natural causes of this disease, but it most frequently happens those who have had repeated and long exposure to asbestos—according to the American Lung Association, between 70% and 80% of all cases occur because of workplace exposure. Asbestos fibers are microscopic and jagged, and when they are inhaled, they become stuck in the mesothelium of the lungs.
Researchers are still unsure of the exact reason that this can lead to mesothelioma, but there are currently several theories:
- DNA Damage: The asbestos fibers may be damaging the genetic information that mesothelium cells use to reproduce, which can lead to the development of cancerous cells.
- Inflammation: Mesothelium cells may be damaged by the jagged edges of the asbestos fibers, which leads to inflammation that is then passed onto new cells.
- Growth Pattern Changes: Asbestos fibers may trigger the production of a protein that causes cells to reproduce too quickly, leading to cancerous growth.
How does asbestos exposure occur?
People with the highest risk of developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illnesses are typically those who work in a profession in which the substance was frequently used.
For example, between 1920 and 1980 asbestos was quite popular as an insulator for homes and other buildings, and this puts a wide variety of construction workers who were active during those years at one of the highest risks for asbestos inhalation. While all types of construction workers could have potentially been exposed, those who worked between the walls of a building—such as plumbers and electricians—have had the highest chance of coming into contact with asbestos.
Unfortunately, asbestos exposure on the job is not completely a thing of the past. There are still some modern-day workers who are at risk as well, such as firefighters who respond to calls at old buildings. When asbestos fibers catch fire, they can become airborne. For the most part, this isn’t a problem for firefighters, since they have sophisticated breathing equipment that can filter the fibers out. However, the asbestos can remain airborne even after the fire has been extinguished, and many responders will have removed their breathing equipment by then.
It’s important to note that these are merely two examples of how a person can be exposed to asbestos in the workplace. The number and variety of workers that have been potentially exposed to this deadly substance is actually much larger.
What should I do if I'm at risk?
If there is a chance that you’ve been exposed to asbestos on the job, it’s important that you seek medical attention as soon as possible. The prognosis for this disease is extremely grim, with most patients living a year or less after being diagnosed. However, early detection can improve your outlook by several years and make you eligible for treatment options that are not available in the late stages of mesothelioma.
Considering a lawsuit against the company responsible for your asbestos exposure is another option. However, cases like these are time sensitive, and some patients simply don’t want to go through the hassle of dealing with the legal system. Before making any decisions, it’s important to consult with your family and a qualified lawyer with experience in mesothelioma cases.