Emily Walsh, community outreach director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, talks about the danger that asbestos poses. This mineral was commonly used for construction and building, but can set marine workers’ health at risk. Ms. Walsh explains how asbestos spreads and why it is a problem.
The dangerous mineral is most often associated with construction and building sites, but poses a danger to marine workers as well.
The marine industry has always been at risk of asbestos exposure. The dangerous mineral was once widely used in wire insulation, caulking, valves, fire retardant materials and many other maritime products. What’s new are the conflicting international stances regarding asbestos abatement and its inclusion in newly manufactured products.
In Australia, asbestos use has been banned altogether, while in the U.S., products are allowed to contain up to one percent of the mineral. Nations like China have no regulations targeting asbestos.
The problem isn’t necessarily that asbestos exists in products we’re currently using. It comes when those products break, degrade, or become damaged, releasing fibers into the air and putting people at risk of inhaling or ingesting them. This means any product manufactured with asbestos has the potential to be dangerous.
What Does This Mean?
For marine workers, it means taking precautions when you’re working aboard older ships, at older shipyards, or around materials imported from countries without asbestos regulations. Be careful to cover your nose and mouth if you think you might be working where you’re in danger, and locate personal protective equipment (PPE) before attempting to remove asbestos.
When ships sink and degrade, or water passes through asbestos lined pipes, fibers may be released. The amount of asbestos released from these products largely depends on something called “friability.” The more friable asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are, the more likely fibers are to be released. Think about the difference between trying to crumble insulation and tile in your hands. Insulation crumbles much more easily, releasing dangerous asbestos particles into the air, which can then be inhaled — this is friability.
If you’re stripping flame retardant insulation, be careful to cover up your respiratory pathways. If you’re handling unbroken tile, valves, or other less breakable materials, be cautious to keep them that way.
Why Asbestos in Water is a Problem
Beyond asbestos abatement being a health hazard for maritime workers, over the past few years asbestos has been found in the drinking water of many different communities, including towns in Texas and Italy. This is where asbestos becomes a more unexpected killer, because it was long thought to only be a danger when inhaled.
While there’s no evidence asbestos does harm to fish or other marine wildlife, it certainly affects animals with mammalian respiratory systems. This includes not only humans, but our pets, and other thirsty animals.
According to a 2003 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding asbestos found in drinking water, erosion of pipes or cement containing asbestos can lead to water contamination. Once water is contaminated it can be ingested, leading to health complications. Additionally, agitated water can release asbestos particles back into the air. Furthering the WHO’s research, a different Italian study found that ingestion of these fibers can be just as dangerous as inhalation.
A lot of minerals get released into our water and soil, staying there quietly and doing us no harm. Exposure to asbestos, however, could lead to a wide array of health disorders. Mesothelioma is the most well known asbestos-related disease. It is a dangerous form of cancer that’s as aggressive as it is rare.
There are three types of mesothelioma: pleural, peritoneal and pericardial. Each type forms in the linings of different internal organs, inflaming the tissue and causing the disease to develop.
One of the biggest challenges of this disease is its extremely long latency period. A shipyard worker who was exposed to asbestos in his mid-twenties may not develop mesothelioma until as many as 50 years later. Long-latency diseases like mesothelioma have a poor prognosis because by the time they’re diagnosed it may be too late.
What to Do
Asbestos is everywhere, not consistently regulated and dangerous, but it’s important not to panic.
Shipyards that consistently work with older ships should rigorously train their staff in how to recognize asbestos, practice containment strategies and get rid of the substance in a safe way. Countries that allow asbestos at low levels need to remove misleading labels like “asbestos free” from products, and countries with zero regulations regarding the mineral need to be lobbied to create them.
By Emily Walsh, community outreach director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.
The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.