Occupational Exposure to Asbestos
Asbestos is a silicate mineral whose long, thin fibers can be either curly, as in the serpentine form; or straight as in the amphibole form. Chrysotile, which is a kind of serpentine asbestos, is the most commonly used asbestos in this country.
Asbestos was widely used commercially from the late 1870s to the mid 1960s. The medical community first determined that asbestos had a harmful effect on human health in the 1930s when an association between occupational exposure to asbestos and the development of asbestosis was established. Later on in the 1950s, scientists found that asbestos was a risk factor for lung-related cancers, including mesothelioma.
Many American Workers have been Exposed to Asbestos
Worker exposure to asbestos started to significantly increase in the early 1940s, and researchers estimate that millions of Americans came in contact with asbestos during the course of their employment. There are some industries whose workers have a history of long-term exposure to high levels of asbestos, such as miners and millers of asbestos, workers involved in the production of textiles containing asbestos, or other asbestos products, and construction workers who installed insulation made from asbestos, or who were involved in the demolition of buildings containing asbestos materials like drywall. Even auto mechanics may have been exposed while repairing brakes with linings made from asbestos.
Many members of the military were also occupationally exposed to asbestos, especially those serving in the Navy. Asbestos-containing insulation was commonly used in Navy ships until the early 1980s, which meant that civilian workers in shipyards were also exposed.
Governmental Agencies Intervene to Regulate Asbestos Exposure
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a ban in 1989 on all new uses of asbestos; however, uses that were already in existence were permitted to continue.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established regulations controlling the level of asbestos exposure for construction, shipyards, and general industry. The agency’s current acceptable asbestos exposure limit for the workplace is 0.1 fibers per milliliter. In addition, OSHA created standards regarding the use of protective equipment like respirators and specific workplace practices and safety procedures.
The 9/11 Attack on the World Trade Center Created a Group of At-Risk Workers
Workers that took part in the rescue, recovery, and cleanup after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center are another group that may potentially develop diseases associated with asbestos exposure. The North Tower of the World Trade Center was constructed using asbestos-containing building materials. When the building fell, it caused the release of hundreds of tons of asbestos into the surrounding air.
This means that firefighters, police officers, paramedics and construction workers were put at significant risk because of their exposure to asbestos. The extent of the health problems from this event will not be fully understood for some time because of the long latency period between asbestos exposure and the development of disease. However, these individuals are being monitored for possible health issues through the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program.