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Maintenance Work Can Carry a High Mesothelioma Risk

22191715_Maryland workerA CDC report out this week on the incidence of malignant mesothelioma in the US suggests that people who renovate or do repairs and maintenance work on older asbestos-containing buildings may have the highest risk for mesothelioma in the coming years.

The report, entitled “Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality – United States, 1999 – 2015” shows that mesothelioma diagnoses are still on the rise, despite regulations put in place to help minimize worker exposure to asbestos.

The Danger of Maintenance and Repair Work

In the first half of the 20th century, asbestos was widely used as an insulator and was added to a variety of materials from floor and ceiling tiles to roof shingles, wallboard, paint and concrete. It’s low cost, easy availability, and resistance to heat, flame, and corrosion made it popular for all kinds of uses.  

Even though asbestos is now understood to be the primary cause of malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer with no known cure, tens of thousands of older homes and buildings in the US still contain the substance. The result is that men and women whose job it is to repair, renovate, or maintain these buildings are potentially putting themselves at risk for mesothelioma in the course of their work.

“Current exposures to commercial asbestos in the United States occur predominantly during maintenance operations and remediation of older buildings containing asbestos,” writes lead report author Jacek Mazurek, MD, PhD, of NIOSH.

The Link Between Asbestos and Mesothelioma

While untouched and intact asbestos poses no health threat, as soon as it is disturbed – such as when a repairman must open an old wall or the insulation around an old boiler must be moved to service the boiler – asbestos fibers can become airborne.

Once inhaled, they stay in the body, triggering a cascade of physiological responses that can result in pleural mesothelioma 20, 40, or even 70 years later.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have established guidelines designed to help protect workers who could be at risk for mesothelioma because of asbestos exposure.

These include measures such as wearing protective gear, using a special kind of respirator in dusty places, and disposing of any removed asbestos in prescribed ways. Unlike many Western countries, the US has not instituted a ban on asbestos.

Despite these regulations, the CDC report indicates that malignant mesothelioma incidence is still not declining and warns against complacency when it comes to protecting workers against this and other asbestos-linked illnesses.

“The continuing occurrence of malignant mesothelioma deaths underscores the need for maintaining measures to prevent exposure to asbestos fibers and other causative EMPs [elongate mineral particles] and for ongoing surveillance to monitor temporal trends,” concludes the report.

The mesothelioma information was released as part of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.


Mazurek, J, et al, “Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality – United States, 1999-2015”, March 3, 2017, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pp. 214 – 218

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