It has been seen through time that those working in the construction industries have a much higher risk of developing cancer from their job than other industries. Even today, with more stringent risk assessments in place, the danger is still much higher in the construction sector. However, many cases arise nowadays due to past exposure and this goes for many of the different types of cancers that face construction workers.
Silica is a huge killer of construction workers and is breathed in as a fine dust on building sites. Breathing problems and lung cancer are associated with over-exposure to silica. Diesel fumes have a long lasting effect on those who are exposed daily to these kinds of emissions, including lung cancer again.
Those construction workers who sand, paint, fill or spray are at risk of lung, bladder or stomach issues. Breathing in dust, solvent exposure or too much contact with lead can create problems to these kinds of workers.
A lot of construction work is carried out during sunny, daylight hours and often throughout the height of summer. This creates a high risk of skin cancer for those workers who do not protect themselves against the harmful UV light.
The biggest killer on the construction site however is asbestos. It’s estimated that in 2005 alone, asbestos was responsible for more than 2,500 deaths in the industry due to past exposures.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos belongs to a group of naturally occurring fibres in minerals found in the soil and rocks and can be separated into long fibres. The three most common types of asbestos are chrysotile, amosite and crocidolite. These fleecy fibres are incredibly strong and resistant to heat, acid, alkali and electrical conduction. Due to these characteristics, asbestos was (and still is in some parts of the world) widely used as fire-proof material, sound insulation and thermal insulation of piping and vessels. It was also used for the manufacture of paper, and can be found in ceiling tiles, linoleum, and mastic, paint, for automotive brakes and clutch pads, as well as structural beams.
Where can it be found?
It is found naturally in rock formations. Its properties of fibrous nature and physical-chemical composition make it resistant to high temperatures, acids, alkalis, to wear and many more qualities. It’s because of this that man has used it in a number of products for consumption: domestic, industrial, maritime, automotive, and construction.
Asbestos is present in:
· Thermal insulation and heating such as radiators, boilers, water pipes, steam, gas and others.
· Pipes and exhaust chambers, chimneys, etc.
· Fireproof insulation in fire protection systems, supporting parts, coated steel, metal, concrete slabs, etc.
· Acoustic insulation of machine rooms, movie studios, recording studios, theatres, etc.,
· Constituent of adhesives, cement, tiles, water tanks, corrugated iron, asphalt paving, ropes, gaskets, cardboard, cloth, etc.
· Friction elements, braking systems, clutches, etc.
· Other varied and domestic uses.
The risks of asbestos are produced by inhaling asbestos fibres, as they often reach the lower airways. The length and configuration of the fibres (small size and long, thin shape) influences their ability to penetrate the airways, as they can remain suspended in the air for a long time and therefore are able to be breathed.
Once inside the lungs, the body's defence mechanisms try to break them and expel them, with many asbestos fibres staying in the body and remaining there for a long time.
The main health effects from exposure to asbestos are: asbestosis (pulmonary fibrosis), lung cancer and mesothelioma (pleural or peritoneal), and associations with other malignancies (gastrointestinal or laryngeal carcinomas) having also been found. It’s suspected, but not confirmed, that asbestos can cause other cancers (kidney, ovarian, breast).
Asbestosis, lung fibrosis or secondary exposure to asbestos is a variable disease evolution which may cause the following symptoms:
· Progressive respiratory distress
· Fatigue, weakness
· Chest tightness
· Chest Pain
Asbestosis is a serious disease that can eventually lead to disability and death.
Breathing lower levels of asbestos may cause alterations in the pleura, called pleural plaques. The effects of pleural plaques on respiration are usually not serious, but exposure to high levels can cause a thickening of the pleura that can restrict breathing.
Mesothelioma is cancer of the lining of the internal organs of the abdominal and chest cavity. Unlike asbestosis, which occurs after prolonged periods of exposure, mesothelioma cases can occur after just one month of exposure. Some cases of mesothelioma have occurred following a single exposure to asbestos.
Mesothelioma has a latency period of 20-40 years and when symptoms occur, cancer has already spread to other parts of the body. Although there are treatments that alleviate symptoms, there is currently no cure possible, making it the most deadly form of asbestos related disease.
The vast majority of mesotheliomas are caused by exposure to asbestos (in 80-85% of cases, it is stated as occupational exposure). Smoking and the presence of metals and organic substances seem to have no influence on the risk of contracting the disease.
The attribution of cancer to asbestos is based on the previous history of exposure to the product. Lung cancer from asbestos exposure may belong to any histological type, and its natural history is no different from cancer produced by other causes. There appears to be a relationship between the risk of lung cancer and asbestos exposure level; very low exposures seem to increase risk. The risk of lung cancer increases significantly if exposure to asbestos is combined with smoking.
If you have any suspicions that there may be some asbestos in your workplace or home, then should contact a licensed contractor, who will commit to further tests and inspections. As an employer, it is advised that you don’t carry out non-licensed work on asbestos, unless you’ve got all the appropriate information, instruction and training.