Written By: Michelle Whitmer,
Last modified: June 9, 2021
Quick Facts
  • National Employment, 2021:
    490,200
  • Similar Occupations:
    Pipe Fitters, Steam Fitters, Boilermakers, Construction and Building Inspectors, Industrial Machinery Mechanics and Maintenance Workers
  • Previously Exposed:
    Yes
  • Still Being Exposed:
    Yes
  • Asbestos-Related Disease Risk:
    Moderate to High
  • States with Highest Employment:
    California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois

How Are Plumbers Exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos was commonly used in the insulation of pipes, boilers, ducts and tanks for its fire- and heat-resistant properties. It was also added to cement to make asbestos cement pipes.

As plumbers cut, saw and sand asbestos wrap insulation, drill into asbestos-containing products, saw and join pipes or sand down block insulation, asbestos fibers are released into the air.

Pipes are among the most common products plumbers encounter. They cut and drill pipes to specific lengths and sizes to fit certain areas of a house or building. This disturbs the asbestos fibers used in the pipe and insulation and releases them into the air, where they can be inhaled. These fibers can accumulate in the body and cause inflammation and scarring that may lead to mesothelioma cancer and other asbestos-related illnesses.

Plumbers also face asbestos risks by handling pumps, valves and gaskets that contain asbestos. Pumps and valves are installed to pressurize and circulate water and other fluids, while gaskets are used inside the pumps and valves to prevent leaks. Over time, these components can wear out and may need to be replaced. When plumbers remove or replace these asbestos-containing products, the fibers can be released into the air where they are easily inhaled by workers.

Asbestos Products Associated with Plumbing

The amount of plumbing work needed in the United States puts plumbers at risk of toxic asbestos exposure because of the many asbestos-containing products they use and repair. Most of these asbestos-containing parts and products were manufactured between the 1940s and 1970s.

White board above blue water heater
Asbestos heat shields were commonly installed around hot water heaters.
Cement

Asbestos cement was used to make many products, including plumbing pipes, toilets and pipe repairing compounds. Plumbers are at risk of asbestos exposure when they cut, repair or replace old cement pipes, remove old cement compounds or service older toilets made of asbestos cement.

Heat Shields

Asbestos-containing heat shields were installed around hot water heaters, which may have been a source of asbestos exposure when plumbers had to remove or repair them. Sometimes these heat shields were made of asbestos millboard.

Damaged asbestos insulation on pipe
Asbestos wrap insulation was applied around plumbing pipes to contain heat.
Insulation

Asbestos insulation was used on pipes, boilers, ducts and tanks. Asbestos wrap insulation was applied around asbestos cement pipes, which presents two layers of asbestos-containing materials that plumbers have to cut through when making repairs.

Joint Compounds

Asbestos was a common additive in joint compounds used by plumbers because it provided strength and heat resistance.

White fireproofing on pipe between beams
Asbestos-containing compounds were used around plumbing pipes to create seals and provide insulation.
Pumps, Valves and Gaskets

Old pumps, valves and gaskets were made with asbestos fibers, which plumbers may be exposed to when repairing or replacing these materials.

Welding Rods

It is rare for traditional plumbers to use welding rods, but some commercial or industrial plumbers may have in the past, and they historically contained asbestos to regulate heat.

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Manufacturers of Asbestos Products Plumbers Use

Many manufacturers using asbestos in products that plumbers were exposed to have been held liable in U.S. courts. Some of the most notorious include the following companies.

  • Johns Manville: One of the biggest asbestos product manufacturers, JM’s asbestos cement products were so widely used that its brand name for the product line, Transite, became synonymous with asbestos cement. Transite pipes exposed many plumbers to asbestos.
  • Celotex Corp.: Celotex made asbestos-containing heat panels and boards that plumbers were exposed to when repairing hot water heaters.
  • GAF Corp.: GAF made several asbestos products plumbers were exposed to, including asbestos pipe insulation, cement, boiler jackets and millboard.
  • Union Carbide: This company used asbestos mined from California to make asbestos cement, joint compound, wallboard and adhesives that plumbers used.
  • Owens-Illinois Co.: Asbestos insulation was made by Owens-Illinois under the brand name Kaylo. Kaylo pipe covering and block insulation was a common source of asbestos exposure for plumbers.
  • E.J. Bartells Company: Bartells manufactured asbestos-containing pipe insulation, insulation pads, cement adhesives and sealants that plumbers used or encountered through their work.
  • Western MacArthur: This company made No. 1 Insulation Cement, No. 28 Insulation Cement and MacArthur Company Low Pressure Pipe Cover, which plumbers used to repair, maintain and install pipes.

Plumbers and Mesothelioma

Research has established a clear connection between plumbing work and an increased risk of mesothelioma, which is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos.

  • In 2018, an International Journal of Epidemiology study highlighted former plumbers as one of the highest-risk groups for asbestos-related diseases. Plumbers are almost 16 times more likely to develop mesothelioma than the general population, according to data gathered by British researchers.
  • A 2017 study published in the European Respiratory Journal reported plumbers in Great Britain suffer unusually high rates of asbestosis because of occupational asbestos exposure.
  • A Swedish study published in 2016 in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found an increased risk of mesothelioma among 24 occupations. Plumbers topped the list with the highest risk of developing the asbestos cancer.
  • In a 2007 study published in The Annals of Occupational Hygiene, epidemiological data suggested a significant risk of asbestos exposure to maintenance workers, including plumbers, who through their work may disturb asbestos-containing materials. It found that poor removal, cleanup and clearance practices presented a significant risk of asbestos exposure to plumbers working in areas that had supposedly been stripped of asbestos. The asbestos exposure of industrial plumbers was measured and showed 62% of workers were exposed to a significant number of asbestos fibers in the first round of testing, and 58% were exposed in the second round.

In addition to mesothelioma, exposure to asbestos causes lung cancer, ovarian cancer, laryngeal cancer and a progressive pulmonary disease called asbestosis.

Treatment is available for these conditions and researchers are working on developing cures. It is important to find a doctor specializing in your diagnosis to ensure you receive the best possible care.

Legal Options for Plumbers Exposed to Asbestos

Plumbers who develop asbestos-related diseases have legal options to seek compensation. They may be eligible to file a personal injury lawsuit or a trust fund claim. Family members who lost a loved one to mesothelioma may qualify to file a wrongful death lawsuit.

  • In 2018, a New York jury awarded $60 million to the estate of Pietro Macaluso, who died of mesothelioma following exposure to asbestos while working as a plumber’s helper and laborer in the construction industry. The defendants appealed twice, and the award was eventually reduced to $6 million in 2019.
  • A California jury awarded $8.45 million to the family of Robert Swanson, who died of mesothelioma following asbestos exposure while working as a plumber and pipe fitter. The wrongful death lawsuit claimed Swanson was exposed to asbestos in boilers, gaskets, rope and cement that was made, supplied or distributed by Weil-McLain, a division of Marley-Wylain Co.
  • Jurors awarded former Union Carbide employee Larry Stewart $7.2 million after finding the company exposed him to asbestos during his career as a plumber. Stewart worked as a plumber from 1968 until he was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2007. He worked on large projects and was apparently exposed to asbestos contained in joint compound used by drywallers who put up walls as soon as the plumbers finished their work. Stewart claimed that sanding by drywallers created dust that filled several rooms at a time, and he didn’t think it was harmful because he never received any warning.

If you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you should find an experienced mesothelioma lawyer to handle your claim. Working with a lawyer specializing in asbestos litigation will ensure your claim is filed correctly and will maximize your chances of gaining substantial compensation to cover medical costs and other expenses.


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