All my life, my father worked at the same paper mill. He was a hardworking man, and my family had a good life because of it.
He paid the bills and provided a nice home for us to live in. We went to good schools, and we had nice things. If I wanted a Cabbage Patch Kids doll for Christmas, Santa brought it. We weren’t rich, but we were the picture of middle-class America.
My father’s job helped him provide for us, but it also exposed him to asbestos, which caused the mesothelioma that took his life. And paper mill workers aren’t the only workers at risk.
People employed in construction, carpentry, pipe trades, shipping industries and many other types of skilled labor face an elevated risk for asbestos-related diseases as well.
Government regulations on asbestos starting in the 1970s have helped limit workplace exposures, but the toxic mineral is not banned in the U.S. and continues to be used in many industries.
A recent research study affirms workers in a variety of construction occupations continue to be at risk for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.
Study Finds Excess Risk of Mesothelioma
The American Journal of Industrial Medicine published a study on October 2014 that followed the health of more than 18,000 construction and craft workers employed at U.S. Department of Energy nuclear sites from 1998 to 2011.
Researchers observed a significantly elevated risk for asbestos-related conditions in this group, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and cancers of the bronchus and trachea.
The study followed carpenters, electricians, pipe workers, construction workers and mill workers. Throughout the study, a total of 2,801 workers died of occupational illnesses, including mesothelioma.
The researchers concluded the excess risk for mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis in this group reflects significant past exposures to asbestos.
Addressing Fears of Developing Cancer
My father was very close with many of the men he worked with. He wasn’t just their co-worker and supervisor. Two of his brothers worked there, and others were lifelong friends.
It was hard for them to watch my father’s illness overtake him. It was even harder for them to live life worrying they might develop mesothelioma too.
Fortunately, not everyone exposed to asbestos will develop mesothelioma.
Most people don’t want to talk about their fear of developing cancer. But for those who have worked in industries linked to asbestos exposure, it’s a necessary conversation to have. We shouldn’t ignore the elephant in the room we should address it.
Worrying about being exposed without taking action doesn’t do any good for anyone. If you think you have been exposed to asbestos and your concerns are founded, you should talk to your doctor.
My sister and I have talked more than once about our possible secondary exposure stemming from our dad’s work clothes. We worry about each other, and we worry about Mom.
In initial appointments with a new doctor, I always bring up how I may have been exposed to asbestos. I don’t have any symptoms whatsoever, but I want to be proactive. It eases my mind to talk about it with my doctor so he can keep a watchful eye, as I do.
Detecting Mesothelioma Early
Most types of mesothelioma are found after a person visits a doctor because of symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath. Unfortunately, mesothelioma symptoms usually arise in the later stages of the cancer’s development, when treatment options are limited.
No research proves early detection guarantees better outcomes for people with mesothelioma, but if you’ve been exposed to asbestos you should take steps to protect your health.
If you’ve been exposed to asbestos:
- Meet with your physician for regular checkups.
- Discuss your asbestos exposure with your doctor each year, and ask if further tests for asbestos-related disease are necessary.
- Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of mesothelioma.
- Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you notice any new symptoms.
- Speak with a counselor if fear of developing mesothelioma gives you anxiety that interferes with daily life.
It’s also a good idea to focus on your overall health if you’ve been exposed to asbestos. There are numerous benefits to a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables. If you’re a smoker, quitting can improve the health of your lungs and reduce your risk of developing asbestos-related lung cancer.
Free Screening for Department of Energy Construction Workers
In 1996, Congress created a medical surveillance program to help people who may have been exposed to hazardous substances at U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) worksites where nuclear weapons were researched or produced.
The federally funded program, called the Building Trades National Medical Screening Program, provided the data for the 2014 study that found elevated rates of asbestos-related disease in former construction workers at these jobsites.
People who worked in nuclear weapons production at more than 20 eligible jobsites can enroll in the program for free benefits, including:
- A comprehensive work history interview
- Medical screening exams
- Early detection of disease and follow-up medical care
- Assistance with compensation
If you think you may have been exposed to any health hazards while performing construction work for the AEC or DOE, you can call 1-800-866-9663 to apply for the program. If you meet the work history requirements, the program can assist you in scheduling medical tests your doctor thinks may be necessary.
Some tests are painless and minimally invasive, and can reveal important information about your health. Tests the program offers to detect signs of asbestos exposure include a chest X-ray, which looks for lung scarring and pleural plaques, and spirometry, which tests the function of your lungs.
It’s important to take initiative when it comes to your health. When mesothelioma is detected early on, people are more likely to qualify for aggressive surgery, which some studies have linked to improved survival.
My dad liked the old proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
Melanie Ball lives in Kentucky. Her father, Richard Lloyd Barker, died of mesothelioma in 1993. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Phoenix.