The use of asbestos in building materials has decreased in the United States during the past several decades due to its worldwide recognition as a deadly carcinogen. At the same time, however, American workers may still find themselves at risk for asbestos exposure due to the fact that many old buildings still contain asbestos. Further, while asbestos is banned from use in some products, there is no federal asbestos ban. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did enact such a law in 1989, it was reversed two years later by a federal appeals court.
Without a permanent asbestos ban in place, millions of workers involved in construction trades or ship repair, renovating old homes or disaster response, continue to face a greater risk of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma.
It is crucial for affected workers to understand the dangers of asbestos exposure. While government safety regulations have been in place for many years, they have not yet been sufficient enough to stop the estimated 12,000-15,000 asbestos-related deaths occurring annually.
Asbestos Exposure: Where It Happens and the Federal Protection Guidelines in Place
Federal asbestos regulations are stated in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Asbestos General Standard and Asbestos Construction Standard. These government standards dictate the legal amount of exposure workers may have to asbestos and procedures that must be used when employees are at risk of exposure.
Among other safety measures, employers are required to provide protective clothing and to use filtration systems to reduce the volume of airborne asbestos. The standards also dictate proper asbestos disposal and mandate workers have medical examinations after prolonged exposure. Workers can develop mesothelioma even after being exposed to a single asbestos fiber, so it is crucial to monitor their health very closely.
Pleural mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers that enter tiny airways in the lungs. These fibers can irritate the pleural lining of the chest, which, over time, leads to mesothelioma.
Even though asbestos has not been used widely in the United States since the 1980s, many workers in construction trades, such as carpentry, renovation, demolition, roofing, flooring, and general labor, to name a few, were exposed to asbestos over a period of many years. Importantly, the risk of developing mesothelioma does not decrease following exposure.
Individuals who develop mesothelioma face a devastating prognosis. If the disease is found at Stage I, the average survival time is 21 months; but if it is detected at Stage IV, that estimate decreases to a mere 12 months, but often less. The five-year survival rate is only 5 to 10 percent.
Recent CDC Study Points to Continued Asbestos Exposure
Even with OSHA guidelines in place, a recent CDC study of mesothelioma deaths between 1999 to 2015 suggests asbestos exposure continues to be a threat for workers. The report noted that while there were 2,479 total mesothelioma deaths in 1999, that number increased to 2,597 in 2015. A majority of these deaths were among individuals who worked in or around construction sites.
The study’s authors noted that the mesothelioma risk for construction workers is still much higher than it should be, particularly with the number of protections employers are mandated to use on job sites. The data indicated an increase in the number of deaths of individuals over 85 years old, yet, “the continuing occurrence of mesothelioma deaths among persons aged <55 years suggests ongoing occupational and environmental exposures to asbestos fibers and other causative EMPs.”
The researchers also suggested, “new cases might result from occupational exposure to asbestos fibers during maintenance activities, demolition and remediation of existing asbestos in structures, installations, and buildings if controls are insufficient to protect workers.”
Even with protective measures in place, the amount of airborne asbestos on construction sites has still been shown to exceed OSHA guidelines. As stated in the study, for example: “20 percent of air samples collected in the construction industry in 2003 for compliance purposes exceeded the OSHA permissible exposure limit.”
What the recent CDC study stresses is that workplace exposure also puts the families of workers at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases. Since asbestos fibers can stick to clothing, workers may take it home with them if their garments are not properly cleaned after being on a worksite.
Not a Problem of the Past
Contrary to the hope that asbestos-related deaths would decline due to decreased use in building materials and increased agency regulation, the CDC study indicates this is not the case. Continued exposure to asbestos still occurs today. Employers in the construction trades must be aware of the risks and take all necessary precautions to ensure employee and public safety.