A new Italian report contains some sobering news for people who once worked in the world’s shipyards: Their risk of developing deadly malignant mesothelioma remains high even three decades after their jobs ended.
Occupational medicine specialists just released their assessment of asbestos exposure among shipbuilders who were diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases between 1996 and 2015.
Each case was carefully evaluated to determine how these mesothelioma patients were exposed to asbestos, how heavy and long that exposure was, and how much of the asbestos remained in their bodies.
Asbestos-Related Diseases and Shipbuilding
The team concluded that the primary asbestos diseases afflicting most of the sick Italian shipbuilders were pleural mesothelioma and lung cancer. They also uncovered a higher-than expected level of a non-malignant asbestos-related condition called asbestosis.
“A high frequency of histological asbestosis, previously ignored,was shown,” writes study author Pietrogino Barbieri in an Italian occupational medicine journal. “The lung burden analysis of asbestos bodies and asbestos fibres, the largest ever performed among ship-building workers, confirms the spread and relevance of asbestos exposure.”
The Mesothelioma Risk of Working on Ships
Mesothelioma experts have long known that shipyards were dangerous places to work. From the 40s to the 80s, asbestos, a strong, non-corrosive insulator and building material impervious to heat and fire, was used throughout ships, from the engine room to the kitchen.
Men and women who helped build or repair such ships, as well as the sailors who spent months of their lives on them, faced a sharply increased risk of mesothelioma because of their exposure to this biopersistent mineral.
The new Italian study found that the 192 shipyard workers diagnosed with mesothelioma had an average occupational exposure duration of 24 years, which was longer than the 196 workers who developed lung cancer. Because of the latency of mesothelioma, most patients did not develop symptoms until an average of 31 years after their last exposure.
Asbestos Persists in the Lungs and Tissues
Another finding of the Italian shipyard worker study is that the mesothelioma patients tended to have much higher levels of asbestos fibres in their lungs and tissues than did workers who developed lung cancer.
Shipbuilders in the US have faced a similar risk for mesothelioma. In in the busy port of Hampton Roads, Virginia between 1982 and 2000 there were 632 cases of mesothelioma – seven times the national average.
Even with modern regulations in place to protect workers from mesothelioma, shipyards remain dangerous. Although asbestos is no longer used in most shipbuilding, workers involved in dismantling decommissioned ships (called shipbreaking) may also be at risk for mesothelioma if they accidentally breathe in or ingest asbestos fibers.
In the US, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines for safe shipbreaking in the presence of asbestos include wearing special negative-pressure respirators and limiting the time workers can spend in an asbestos-laden environment.
Barbieri, P and Sommigliana A, July 26, 2016, La Medicina Del Lavoro, pp. 315-326