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Agricultural workers use machines and work by hand to grow and harvest crops and to raise animals. Mesothelioma in farmers and agricultural workers occurs because of asbestos exposure through equipment, soil, and vermiculite.
How Do Farm Workers Encounter Asbestos?
Asbestos exposure is strongly associated with industrial jobs. These types of workplaces, from power plants and factories to shipyards and mines, used asbestos for decades. They used asbestos in equipment, fireproofing and insulation materials, vehicles, gaskets, boilers, furnaces, and many other parts and materials used daily on the job.
Agriculture is not often associated with asbestos exposure, but it has happened in the past, and it is still a risk for many workers. Farmers and farmworkers are at risk for asbestos exposure through old buildings, equipment, soil, and vermiculite.
Asbestos in Farm Buildings
- Cement board and pipe
- Electrical conduits
- Fireproofing materials
- Flooring materials
- Pipe covering
- Roofing materials
Farmworkers responsible for maintenance in buildings where asbestos exists risk exposure. When these materials get disrupted by work, the fibers can become airborne, causing exposure and later illness.
Demolition of older buildings on farms presents a serious risk of exposure. If not done safely or if the presence of asbestos is unknown, those working on it and anyone in the area could inhale disturbed asbestos fibers.
Asbestos in Farm Equipment
Machinery and equipment in all industries have contained asbestos in the past, and many still do today. Brakes and clutches, for instance, in tractors contained asbestos to reduce overheating from friction. Other components with asbestos included:
- Vehicle hood liners
- Gaskets and seals
- Insulating panels
- Under sprays
Workers on farms who maintain machinery and make repairs can be exposed to asbestos. When they remove and change parts, the particles of asbestos can become airborne. When inhaled, those fibers can trigger damage that leads to mesothelioma, asbestosis, or lung cancer.
Vermiculite with Asbestos
Like asbestos, vermiculite is a natural mineral with many industrial uses. Unlike asbestos, it is also used in farming and is not linked with cancer. Vermiculite can be harmful if it is contaminated with asbestos. These two minerals often occur together, and when vermiculite is mined, it may carry harmful asbestos fibers.
Farms use vermiculite for several purposes, many similar to those of asbestos: insulation, fireproofing, and building materials. They also use it as a soil amendment because it improves and lightens soil, helping plants grow better.
Farmers and agricultural workers handling contaminated vermiculite could be exposed to asbestos. Even those farms not actively using vermiculite may have some residual material in the soil from past use. Stirring up the dust from this soil can cause exposure.
Vermiculite does not always contain asbestos, but the case of the W.R. Grace mine in Libby, Montana highlighted this reality:
- For decades the company mined vermiculite contaminated with asbestos and shipped it to processing plants around the country.
- From there the vermiculite went out to farms and other industries for use.
- Miners and local residents in Libby experienced asbestos exposure, and thousands of people got sick.
- Any residual Libby vermiculite on farms still poses a risk to workers today.
Asbestos in Soil
Farming is dusty work, with the soil disturbed on nearly a daily basis. If there is any asbestos in the soil, it may harm workers. Asbestos in soil may come from past contamination, such as vermiculite or natural occurrences.
Asbestos is not widespread in soil, but there are localized areas where higher concentrations pose a risk:
- Scientists have found areas of southern Nevada with significant amounts of asbestos in the soil. These areas are near farms and put workers at risk. They found that this contaminated soil contributed to higher-than-average rates of mesothelioma in women and younger people in the region.
- Another study looked at naturally-occurring asbestos in California. It contributed to elevated cases of mesothelioma in local farmers.
- In Mexico, farmers may be at risk from soil exposure to erionite. This is a mineral that is similar to asbestos and has been shown to be a contributing factor in mesothelioma.
Preventing Exposure on Farms
Agricultural employers have a responsibility to keep their workers safe from asbestos exposure. Workers should also know their rights and protections before working in a risky area. Some steps to take to reduce exposure risks include:
- Testing the soil for asbestos
- Providing workers with safety gear if working with asbestos
- Training employees to work safely with and around asbestos
- Finding out where there is asbestos in farm buildings
- Regularly checking on building asbestos materials to keep it secure
- Following all state laws regarding safe removal or abatement of asbestos in buildings
All Asbestos-Exposed Workers Eligible for Compensation
If you have worked on a farm or were a farmer and later received a diagnosis of asbestos-related illnesses, you may have legal options. A lawyer specializing in these cases can help you determine the negligent party, often a manufacturer of asbestos products, like insulation or vermiculite.
It is essential to understand that all workers are eligible to seek compensation for negligent asbestos exposure. You do not need to be a citizen or even a legal resident to take action for justice and compensation for your illness. Let an experienced mesothelioma or asbestos lawyer outline your options and help you take the next steps.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.