A 24-year study of more than 17,000 sheet metal workers shows that even indirect exposure to asbestos can be deadly. The study found that these workers are much more likely to die of mesothelioma or asbestosis than the general public – even though their industry does not use asbestos.
Mesothelioma is an extremely rare cancer in the U.S., with about 2,500 new cases each year. But unlike other cancers, the cause of mesothelioma is well-known. People who have worked or even lived around asbestos are at much higher risk for mesothelioma.
While sheet metal work itself doesn’t directly involve the use of asbestos, the profession is risky because workers typically spend their professional lives in the vicinity of asbestos-containing construction products. These can include everything from roofing and siding to gutters, HVAC systems, plumbing and industrial equipment. Drilling, hammering, punching or riveting sheet metal to an asbestos product can release tiny shards of asbestos which can lodge in the lungs and cause mesothelioma decades later.
The newest data on sheet metal work and mesothelioma followed 17,345 sheet metal workers with more than 20 years in the trade. The study tracked the causes of death among these workers between 1986 and 2010.
“Significant excess mortality was seen for mesothelioma and asbestosis,” writes study author Laura Welch, MD, with the Center for Construction Research and Training. The study was conducted in collaboration with the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Duke University. Controlling for smoking, the study also found an elevated risk for lung cancer and COPD among sheet metal workers.
The fact that sheet metal workers are more likely to die of mesothelioma, even though they may not work directly with asbestos products, points to the extreme toxicity of asbestos. The EPA has acknowledged that no amount of asbestos exposure is “safe” and cases of mesothelioma have been reported with only minimal exposure.
The new report appears in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
Welch, L, et al, “Mortality among sheet metal workers participating in a respiratory screening program”, February 24, 2015, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Epub ahead of print