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Accounting for more than 80 percent of all pleural mesothelioma cases, asbestos exposure is the primary catalyst in developing the rare cancer. Because asbestos was such a widely used mineral for most of the 1900s, many commercial workers encountered it on a daily basis and transported fibers home on their clothing, placing their families at risk as well. Most current mesothelioma patients can link their condition to occupational asbestos exposure.
Because asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, mines were developed across the United States to harvest the fibers. Workers at these mines and processing plants – as well as residents near the sites where natural asbestos was removed from the ground – are prime candidates for developing an asbestos-related disease.
Commercial jobsites also have a legacy of occupational asbestos exposure because common equipment often contained the fire-retardant mineral. Such jobsites included shipyards, auto-manufacturing plants, metalworks, oil refineries, power plants and chemical plants. When these worksites did not provide changing facilities for their employees, laborers often went home in clothing covered with the fibers that had accumulated throughout the workday.
Individuals who worked at high-risk jobsites were not the only individuals who encountered asbestos routinely during their careers. Plumbers, electricians, railroad workers, auto mechanics, construction workers and machinists also encountered asbestos in prominent tools of their trades. Although industries have been reformed in recent years to reduce or eliminate the threat of current asbestos exposure, firefighters are still at a continual risk of exposure when responding to a fire at an older building constructed prior to modern asbestos regulations.
Every branch of the Armed Forces relied on asbestos products, primarily as insulation for their buildings, aircrafts, ships and vehicles. The Navy’s use far exceeded any other branch, however, using a significant amount of asbestos-containing materials within World War II era vessels. Veterans who served on these ships as well as the shipyard workers who built them now face an elevated risk of developing mesothelioma cancer.
Accidental exposure, although far less frequent then occupational exposure, has tragically exposed many citizens to dangerous asbestos fibers. One such account was the World Trade Center incident of September 11, 2001. Approximately 2,000 tons of asbestos dust from the fallen skyscrapers was released into the air, resulting in respiratory problems for 62 percent of New Yorkers who were exposed to the dust cloud.
Natural disasters can also send loose asbestos into the air and surrounding environment. The winds and rain of Hurricane Katrina demolished thousands of older homes. Recovery efforts are striving to prevent the further release of asbestos fibers from older materials still containing the toxic substance. Those helping in these recovery efforts should use caution when working with old materials.