Although it is now known to be highly dangerous, asbestos was a common construction material for more than 50 years, showing up in the insulation, wallboards, floor and ceiling tiles, shingles and elsewhere in hundreds of thousands of buildings. When aging or storm-damaged asbestos is disturbed or handled, dust can enter the body through the nose or mouth and set up a chain of events that may lead to mesothelioma or other cancers.
The hurricane raised the risk of asbestos exposure for cleanup workers, but hundreds of Louisiana residents had already been touched by mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases. Government statistics from 2002 to 2006 put the incidence of mesothelioma in Louisiana at 1.3 per 100,000 residents, almost 30 percent higher than the national average. According to the Environmental Working Group, there were just under 700 recorded deaths from asbestos-related diseases in Louisiana from 1979 through 1999. What is unusual about Louisiana’s statistics is that just as many people died of asbestosis, a more common but generally less-lethal lung problem, than died of mesothelioma cancer.
Part of the blame for these deaths falls on Louisiana’s vital shipping industry. Situated on the Gulf Coast, Louisiana is home to one of the country’s largest sea ports and to several large shipping operations. Because asbestos was long prized in the shipbuilding industry for its fire and heat resistance, shipyard workers and sailors have a significantly higher chance of coming in contact with asbestos and contracting mesothelioma than many other types of workers.
The same is true for workers in two other industries, both of which are prevalent in Louisiana: power plants and oil refineries. The qualities that made asbestos a material of choice for insulating ship boilers and home attics, also made it superior for use around heat-generating equipment in power plants and oil refineries. Not only did workers in these industries come in contact with asbestos when working with equipment, but some were even provided with protective gear made from asbestos. When workers brought their clothes home to be washed, many inadvertently exposed their families to asbestos fibers which put them at greater risk for mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma Cancer in Louisiana, National Program of Cancer Registries, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, Accessed May 18,2010.
The Asbestos Epidemic in American, Environmental Working Group website. Accessed May 16, 2010.
Number and Capacity of Petroleum Refineries. US Energy Information Administration: Independent Statistics and Analysis. Accessed May 16, 2010.