Construction Workers And Mesothelioma

Construction workers have a greater risk of asbestos exposure compared to most other career fields in the U.S. Homes and buildings built before 1990 may contain large amounts of the toxic fiber in flooring, roofing, insulation, and more. Workers increase their long-term health risks the longer they are exposed to carcinogens like asbestos. Accordingly, construction workers have an increased risk for several types of cancer, including mesothelioma.

Two construction workers discussing the project ahead.

Construction Workers and Mesothelioma

Today, asbestos is a well-known carcinogenic threat. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned new uses of asbestos in the U.S. and heavily regulated existing applications. As a result, most toxic exposure occurs through contact with the remaining asbestos found in buildings, homes, and some fireproofed products (such as insulation).

Construction workers and people in related trades have a significantly higher risk of developing asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma.

Construction workers could expose themselves to airborne asbestos particles through a variety of work-related activities (like tearing down walls or removing old pipes). Moreover, workers may be at risk of asbestos exposure just by working near contaminated areas and/or individuals. Research of asbestos-caused diseases shows that family members of construction workers may also be at risk if workers take contaminated clothing home.

Over time, affected individuals may begin to show symptoms of chronic illness. If you’ve been exposed to asbestos, years later you may experience:

  • Cough lasting at least 8 weeks
  • Pain or tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing or hoarse voice

How Construction Workers Are Exposed to Asbestos?

People in the construction industry must interact with several dangerous carcinogens daily. Generally, personal protective gear and other precautions are taken to prevent breathing in dangerous dust or gases on jobsites. If carcinogens are inhaled or ingested, the tiny particles can travel further into the body to cause damage – instead of being coughed up. Over time, tissue damage may occur, leading to symptoms of occupational disease.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) oversees employee protections in the workplace. The organization maintains specific regulations about the permitted level of airborne fibers on a jobsite. OSHA also enforces safety protocols when handling asbestos-containing materials.

Asbestos-containing products in construction you may encounter:

  • Asbestos cement
  • Backing material on floor tiles and vinyl flooring
  • Brick and plaster sealants
  • Carpet underlay
  • Eaves
  • Fencing
  • Fireproofed materials
  • Heat-resistant fabrics
  • Insulation
  • Pipes and plumbing
  • Roofing
  • Shingles and siding
  • Soundproofed materials
  • Textured paints, decorative ceiling coatings
  • Thermal boards around fireplaces

Certain tasks expose some workers to larger or more concentrated amounts of airborne carcinogens. At-risk careers related to construction include:

  • Asbestos abatement worker
  • Carpenter
  • Demolition worker
  • Drywall remover
  • Electrician
  • Pipefitter
  • Plumber
  • Sheet metal worker
  • Welder

Typically, the longer you’ve been exposed to carcinogens like asbestos, the higher your risk for occupational diseases like mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. Yet, extremely high levels of asbestos exposure over a few days have resulted in mesotheliomas in some people. Conversely, some workers were exposed to the fiber for decades in the construction industry and never develop mesothelioma or another form of cancer.

Long-term Health Risks

The development of long-term health problems for construction workers depends on several factors (such as smoking habits and your personal and family medical history). The latency period between exposure and the first physical symptoms of the disease can last up to 40 years. As a result, many people are unaware of their illness until it has progressed to a serious stage.

Studies show construction workers have an increased risk for the following occupational diseases:

  • Asbestosis
  • Colon cancer
  • Esophagus cancer
  • Gastrointestinal cancer
  • Larynx cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma
  • Pleural mesothelioma
  • Pleural scarring
  • Stomach cancer

If you have an illness caused by asbestos, you may experience symptoms like:

  • Anemia
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Cough that won’t go away
  • Coughing up phlegm with blood
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling out of breath
  • Loss of appetite
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Swollen face or neck
  • Weight loss (without trying)
  • Wheezing or hoarse voice

Family members of construction workers are also at risk of asbestos through secondary exposure. Workers may bring asbestos fibers home on skin, hair, clothes, and work equipment without realizing it. At home, these particles can be transferred to frequently used surfaces as well as family members through touch. Several studies of workers’ spouses show higher rates of mesothelioma.

Cigarettes Effect on Cancer Risk

Asbestos is the primary risk factor for developing tumors in the lungs, mesothelium, and more. Yet, smoking cigarettes has been shown to significantly contribute to tumor growth. Cigarette smoke and asbestos work in conjunction to damage lung tissue. Subsequently, construction workers who smoke have a substantially increased risk for respiratory damage, lung cancer, and pleural mesothelioma.

Quitting smoking as soon as possible may reverse some cigarette-caused injuries. Moreover, people who smoke should visit a cancer treatment center more frequently for health screenings and regular medical exams.

Diagnosing Health Complications Among Construction Workers

Annual mesothelioma screenings are recommended for people who work in a high-risk industry for asbestos exposure. Annual screenings are especially important for retired workers and for those whose exposure first began 10 or more years ago. Current and retired employees of the construction field with symptoms of occupational disease (such as trouble breathing) should see a doctor for diagnostic testing.

Normally, diagnosing a construction worker’s health complications begins with a physical examination. The doctor may use a stethoscope to listen to your heart and lungs. If your symptoms include swelling or lumps under the skin, the doctor will check these areas manually. During this time, your doctor may ask about your work history and the possibility of toxic exposure.

Next, radiology (such as an X-ray), blood, and sputum tests may be ordered if the doctor suspects an illness or injury.

The prognosis for asbestos-caused diseases depends on how soon doctors can diagnose them. A biopsy is the most effective way to diagnose the presence of mesotheliomas. A bronchoscopy, however, may be a less invasive option for some patients.

Programs to Help

Construction workers who have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness may rely on several programs to help.

  • Asbestos trust funds have been established to manage the legal compensation claims from workers affected by asbestos exposure.
  • Medicare insurance is available to some people with the disease. Coverage may include medical treatment, in-patient hospital stays, and prescriptions. Visit a Medicare Regional Offices and or call 1-800-MEDICARE (633-4227) for benefits information.
  • Veterans’ benefits may offer treatment, disability compensation payments, and more to vets who qualify. Benefits may be used to treat service-related diseases as well as conditions not connected to their service.
  • Workers’ compensation provides cash and medical bill payments to people whose illness was caused by occupational exposure to asbestos.