Asbestos in Electrical Wiring
Asbestos exposure can occur in many ways, but construction is one of the major sources of airborne fibers. Use of asbestos in construction materials is now limited, but for decades it was used in nearly every aspect of building, including insulation of electrical wiring. Electricians today, and anyone else working around or with wiring in older homes and buildings, are at risk of being exposed to asbestos and therefore also at risk for developing mesothelioma or other associated illnesses.
The risk of asbestos exposure is considered moderately increased for electricians as compared to the general population and some workers in this field have suffered from mesothelioma and other devastating illnesses. Lawsuits have been filed by some victims who believe they were not warned of the risks in their line of work or by surviving family members.
The Use of Asbestos in Wiring
Asbestos is a good natural insulator. It insulates because it doesn’t conduct heat or electricity well. For many years, asbestos was used in a wide variety of types of insulation materials, including those used in walls, around plumbing elements, around furnaces, heaters, and pumps, and of course around the wires used in electrical systems, for both buildings and ships. Insulation for wiring may include paper or cloth materials, tapes, and other types of materials and any of them may be impregnated with asbestos fibers.
How Electricians May Be Exposed
There are a couple of different ways in which electricians may be exposed to airborne asbestos fibers. The first is from the electrical wiring itself. Electrical wires must be insulated to contain electrical charge, and asbestos has a lot of properties that make it good for the job. For many years before the dangers of asbestos were fully understood, the materials used to coat and insulate electrical wires were made with asbestos fibers.
Electricians working in older homes or buildings that used such insulation can be exposed simply by working with those wires. Pulling out old wires and stripping out the old insulation to recover the copper wires underneath can cause fibers to become airborne. Drilling into walls that contain asbestos fibers is particularly dangerous because of the dust produced, but electricians must do this to access wiring and to create conduits.
Another way electricians are exposed to asbestos is through working on construction sites. Even if an electrician is not working with wiring that contains asbestos, other people on the site may be disturbing asbestos, from wall insulation or ceiling tiles for instance, and that can cause fibers to become airborne contaminating the air and putting all workers at risk for exposure. Dust in construction sites may contain asbestos fibers.
Research Finds Asbestos Risk Elevated for Electricians
Several studies have been conducted to determine the level of exposure to asbestos that electricians are exposed to on the job. Some have found that the risk is moderately elevated, while others found that while the risk was increased, the amount of exposure was still within acceptable limits. What is known with certainty is that electricians are exposed to more asbestos than the typical person.
In one such study, the research was not restricted to electricians, but did include them in the participant group. The researchers looked for biomarkers for mesothelioma in over 100 workers who were known to have been exposed to asbestos on the job. The electricians in the group were found to have biomarkers, the proteins that indicate the presence of mesothelioma cancer cells. Along with pipefitters and maintenance workers, the electricians had some of the highest risk for mesothelioma.
Another study investigated electricians specifically and attempted to determine if the exposure risk came from electrical products or some other source. What they found was that, while electricians have higher rates of mesothelioma than the general population, it may not be from the electrical products themselves. The exposure may be more likely to come from asbestos fibers coming from the dust of renovation work on job sites.
Yet another study looked at the exposure risks for electricians working on stripping old, potentially asbestos-containing, insulation from wires. This is done to reuse or recycle the underlying copper wiring. Machines are mostly used to do this, but the researchers wondered if those electricians working the machines were being exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos. They found that workers were in fact being exposed to airborne asbestos fibers, but that the levels were within the acceptable range.
Many people have filed lawsuits over the years related to asbestos exposure at work and later diagnoses of mesothelioma and other illnesses. Many of these have come from electricians. In one case, a former electrician for Carnival Cruise lines died of lung cancer caused by over a decade of exposure on ships. The man’s surviving family successfully sued and won a settlement on his behalf.
In another case, an Indiana man worked for four decades as an electrician, handling and breathing in asbestos fibers without understanding the risks. At 78 years old he began lawsuits because of developing malignant pleural mesothelioma. His doctors told him that both his work as an electrician and his smoking habit led to the diagnosis decades later. The case is expected to be complex, but the man and his family are fighting for both justice and compensation.
There have even been cases of lawsuits filed by the children of electricians. Secondary exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma or lung cancer. When a worker, like an electrician, brings home asbestos fibers on his or her clothing, those fibers enter the air of the home and put children at risk. This is also known as take-home exposure and it puts many more people at risk of becoming sick.
Electrical wiring contained asbestos in the insulation materials for decades. Electricians working with those wires and in the construction sites that contained other sources of asbestos were put at risk of developing debilitating and life-threatening illnesses like mesothelioma. Now many of those workers are seeking justice and compensation through lawsuits and settlements.
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