February marks National Cancer Prevention Month: a time to both reflect on the causes of cancer and learn about preventative measures that can keep cancer from developing in the first place.
When it comes to the deadly cancer known as mesothelioma, occupational, on-the-job exposure to asbestos is the number one cause.
Workers who handle asbestos-containing materials and products regularly are at the highest risk. The more one comes into contact with asbestos, the higher their risk of developing an asbestos-related disease.
While occupational exposure to asbestos has been declining in recent years, it continues to threaten many American workers who work in certain trades and industries.
Which Jobs Are at the Highest Risk for Occupational Exposure?
For most of the 20th century, asbestos was a highly profitable mineral that was used abundantly across dozens of industries. In fact, According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than 75 different trades exposed workers to asbestos.
Manufacturers incorporated asbestos into virtually any product or material that needed to withstand heat, fire, and electricity.
Asbestos use peaked between the 1920s and 1980s, but not before it found its way into brakes, bricks, ceiling and flooring tiles, concrete, drywall, fireproof coatings, insulation, joint compound, paints, pipe wrap, roofing, siding, and hundreds of other products.
Given the innumerable applications of asbestos, millions of American workers have been exposed to it, including those who have worked or currently work as:
- Aircraft mechanics
- Automotive mechanics
- Coal miners
- Construction workers
- Custodial workers
- Shipyard workers
In addition to the above occupations, U.S. military personnel have been disproportionately impacted by asbestos-related diseases.
Due to the abundance of asbestos used in all branches of the military, generations of soldiers were exposed to the deadly carcinogen. As a result, roughly 33% of all mesothelioma cases have been shown to involve Navy or shipyard exposure to asbestos.
21st Century Jobs With the Highest Asbestos Exposure Risks
In its heyday, asbestos was everywhere. Now, asbestos is more strictly regulated by the federal government, but it is still legal in the United States, despite the well-known cancer risks. Comparatively, over 55 countries worldwide have banned all uses of asbestos outright.
Though usage of asbestos is now limited to certain industries, the threat of asbestos is still very much alive — largely because of its prevalence in construction materials used prior to the 1980s.
Legacy asbestos can still be found in older homes, schools, buildings, and factories. It’s for this reason that workers who are presently involved in the renovation, demolition, and construction of buildings stand at the highest risk of asbestos exposure today.
The threat of asbestos exposure grows as these older materials start to degrade, deteriorate, and break down. It’s when this happens that asbestos is at its most dangerous. When an asbestos-containing product is disturbed, it can release microscopic asbestos fibers into the air.
Once asbestos fibers become airborne, they can be unknowingly inhaled or ingested. Over a stretch of time — often between 20 to 50 years — these fibers can lead to the formation of mesothelioma tumors.
Know Your Asbestos Exposure Risks
Remember: Just because asbestos isn’t incorporated into products and materials as often as it once was, doesn’t mean it is no longer a threat. Americans are exposed to asbestos and develop asbestos-related diseases every single day.
Legacy asbestos — asbestos that remains in older buildings, houses, and structures — is still a major problem that has yet to be addressed in thousands of local communities around the country.
The true toll of this problem should not be overlooked: As many as 12,000 to 15,000 Americans die each year from asbestos-related diseases.
With better preventative measures, improved occupational safety guidelines, and increased regulation on the industries still lobbying for asbestos use, the death toll can go down.
National Cancer Prevention Month
To learn more about National Cancer Prevention Month, be sure to visit our first blog post of February, which introduces the awareness campaign and its goals.
The Prevent Cancer Foundation recommends that we all do our part in preventing cancer by cultivating 7 preventative habits, including:
- Don’t use tobacco
- Protect your skin from the sun
- Eat a healthy diet
- Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active
- Practice safe sex and avoid risky behaviors
- Get immunized (HPV and hepatitis vaccines)
- Know your family medical history and get regular cancer screenings
This month, you can also do your part by educating yourself on cancer, spreading news and information regarding preventative measures, and donating to outreach and cancer research efforts.
Check out our other National Cancer Prevention Month blog posts to learn more about: