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Construction Workers and Mesothelioma: Is Protection Really Possible?

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The study, conducted by researchers in the Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine at Umea University, focused on male Swedish construction workers who had participated in health examinations between 1971 and 1993.

Among the 367,568 workers included in the analysis, there were a total of 419 cases of mesothelioma occurring between 1972 and 2009. As expected, the incidence of mesothelioma was high among those who worked with some form of asbestos-containing insulation, including plumbers.  But, although these groups of workers had higher rates of mesothelioma than the general public, they accounted for only 21% of the mesothelioma cases in the study.

There were even higher numbers of mesothelioma cases among concrete workers and wood workers. Other occupational group with high mesothelioma levels included painters, electricians and foremen. People born between 1935 and 1945 were the most likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, largely because of the cancer’s long latency period and the lack of protections during their working years. The risk dropped off in workers born after 1955.

Although many of the mesothelioma cases occurred in jobs traditionally associated with asbestos exposure, authors Bengt Jarvholm, MD, PhD, and Anders Englund, MD, PhD, point out that occurrence of the cancer in other types of construction workers suggests that total protection of all workers in the vicinity of asbestos may not be possible.

“The results show that asbestos exposure occurs in many occupational groups, indicating that safe handling of asbestos is a very difficult or even impossible task in the construction industry,” the authors conclude in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

In the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has established guidelines designed to protect asbestos workers. Such workers are required to be advised of the risk, trained in asbestos handling, and outfitted with protective gear, including special respirators. The results of the Swedish study cast doubt on whether these regulations go far enough in protecting all construction workers against asbestos-linked diseases like mesothelioma.


Jarvholm, B and Englund, A, “The impact of asbestos exposure in Swedish construction workers”, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, January 2014, pp. 49-55

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