Not everyone can control whether they develop cancer. Yet, research has shown time and time again that certain avoidable risk factors can increase one’s chances of developing cancer, such as chemical exposure, poor diet and excessive consumption of alcohol. What people may not know, however, is that where they work can have an impact, too.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), revealed data collected between 1999 and 2012 that examined differing cancer rates from state to state. Researchers found that residents of Maine were nearly twice as likely to develop mesothelioma – a lethal, asbestos-caused cancer – than those living elsewhere in the United States.
This is an astonishing rate, but hardly surprising. Maine has a small population and therefore a high rate of enlistment, with over seven active duty military members per 1,000 residents. So Maine, being a “military state,” is also well-known for its history of Navy shipyard building. This, it seems, is precisely where the problem lies.
The History of Health Dangers on the Coast
For decades, those working on the coast – shipyard workers, U.S. Navy service personnel and members of the U.S. Coast Guard, for example – were at high risk of exposure to asbestos.
As early as the 1940s, almost all ship and shipyard materials were built using asbestos. The mineral offered properties such as durability, heat and flame resistance, sound absorption and resistance to electrical and chemical damage: useful for products such as thermal insulation, packing for pipes, gaskets, valves and boilers. In fact, any one ship could contain as much as 1,000 tons of asbestos.
Because of its sheer abundance and manufacturers’ failure to warn, asbestos became a major source of workplace injury. When workers sawed through insulated pipes, for example, asbestos fibers were released into the air, inhaled and directly caused severe asbestos-related diseases. As a result, Navy veterans make up 30 percent of Americans with mesothelioma.
Symptoms of mesothelioma, a cancer affecting the lining of the lungs, heart or abdomen, don’t develop until 10 to 50 years after first exposure to asbestos. This long latency period means people affected by the disease don’t know they’re sick until it is far too late.
Risks Still a Concern
Sadly, the high rate of workers who became sick with mesothelioma as a result of exposures in 20th century shipyards was preventable. If manufacturers had been transparent about the dangers of asbestos, then thousands of lives might have been saved.
Even today, people working on or deconstructing asbestos-containing ships are at increased risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. As someone who lived or worked on the coast in or around shipyards, taking action if you believe you have been exposed to asbestos – is of the utmost importance.