How Asbestos Exposure has Affected Senior Citizens

 The year was 1973.
The year Watergate made headlines. The year Roe v. Wade made history in the U.S. Supreme Court. The year the United States finally found peace in Vietnam.
And the year asbestos use peaked in the United States.
In this year alone, more than 719,000 tons of asbestos were processed into flooring, gaskets, insulation and other industrial products by workers who weren’t even aware that they were handling asbestos much less how dangerous it would be to their health.

Fast forward to 2012.

Approximately 3,000 Americans will be newly diagnosed with mesothelioma before the year is over.  The vast majority of these diagnoses will be made in seniors. Not coincidentally, this is the generation that spent most of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s in asbestos-contaminated job sites.

Then: Asbestos Exposure

Until the 1980s, asbestos was present at nearly every industrial jobsite.
With more than 3,000 products containing the fibers, workers literally faced it around every corner. Some of the most common asbestos-containing items included:

  • Insulation
  • Paint
  • Shingles
  • Tiles
  • Adhesives
  • Textiles
  • Tape

Most industrial workers’ job descriptions required them to handle these products in a way that released the fibers into the air.
One asbestos lawsuit filed by the family of Glenwood Chism, a plant worker who was diagnosed with mesothelioma, gives a detailed look at the types of dangerous work activities that were common at the time. Chism, a former mixing operator and bagger, was employed at an A.P. Green plant in Mexico, Missouri, from 1952 to 1955 and later from 1957 to 1964. He testified at trial that there were times when he dumped raw ingredients from overhead bins into a cart and that he sometimes used his hands to scoop raw asbestos and other materials into the mix.

Such blatant use of asbestos continued for many years. Companies were warned that the fibers could cause cancer in their employees as far as 50 years down the road, but they continued to use the inexpensive, readily available fibers.

Unfortunately, asbestos was not just contained to job-sites. Companies rarely provided protective gear to the workers, instead allowing them to handle the asbestos in their basic work attire. Most workers wore their gear home bringing the microscopic asbestos fibers with them.

Still in their work clothing, employees greeted their families. They hugged children and spouses, perhaps even sat down to dinner, then brought the asbestos-carrying clothing to the laundry room. Members of the family who washed the work clothes often jostled the fibers free and inhaled them as they did the laundry.

It was not until the 1980s that the occupational use of asbestos and the corresponding levels of secondhand exposure began to taper down under the pressure of medical, legal and advocacy groups.
Exposure dropped sharply between 1982 and 1983 and then continued to slowly decrease through 1989.

Unfortunately, much of the damage had already been done.

Now: Asbestos-Related Diseases

The consequences of this asbestos use would begin to unfold 20 to 50 years later.

The Environmental Working Group estimates that now, one out of every 125 men over the age of 50 dies from an asbestos-related disease.

Mesothelioma, asbestosis and asbestos-related lung cancer are just a few of the conditions that seniors may now be facing from past asbestos exposure. Lung fibrosis, pleural plaques and pleural effusions are other illnesses that asbestos-exposed seniors are frequently diagnosed with.

If these people were exposed to asbestos in the last century, why are they just now seeing the health effects?

Asbestos-related diseases develop differently than other diseases.
Once the fibers have entered the body, they easily get trapped and the body has a hard time expelling them. They slowly cause scarring and inflammation, as well as gradual cancerous changes within the body. Decades can go by before the actual disease develops and symptoms can take even longer to emerge.

This latency period means that young men and women who began their careers in the asbestos-littered 1960s and ‘70s may just now as seniors be developing the health effects. In fact, the average age of a newly diagnosed mesothelioma patient is 65 years old.

Because many now-seniors were also smokers, their bodies are especially susceptible to developing lung cancer.

With this in mind, seniors with an industrial or military work history should be aware of their increased risk of asbestos-related diseases. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits may be available to help seniors get screenings for these illnesses.

Author bio: Faith Franz is a writer for the Mesothelioma Center. She combines her interests in whole-body health and medical research to educate the mesothelioma community about the newest developments in cancer care.

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