Chemical Plant Workers
Asbestos was a common sight at chemical plants up until 1980. It was used for many purposes, including insulating pipes and other extremely hot equipment. When asbestos products were first applied, as they aged and finally replaced, cancer-causing fibers were released. Employees and contractors at these plants inhaled asbestos, and some of them, decades later, developed a fatal form of cancer – pleural mesothelioma.
What Do Chemical Plant Workers Do?
Chemical plants start with a “feedstock” or raw material processed to make other products. That material is usually natural gas liquids or naphtha created when petroleum’s refined. One of those liquids is ethane, which is fed into a large, complex piece of equipment called a “cracker.”
High temperatures “crack” the bonds between carbon atoms, resulting in ethylene. Other substances are “cracked” to form other chemicals that are the building blocks of plastics and other products.
Chemical plant workers control or operate, maintain, and repair equipment that makes these chemical processes possible. They monitor instruments to ensure the plant is operating safely and efficiently. Workers inspect equipment and record data.
How are Chemical Plant Workers Exposed to Asbestos?
Asbestos was used throughout chemical plants because of its resistance to chemical corrosion and heat. Workers often wore asbestos-containing safety gear. It was on laboratory countertops that were heat and chemical-resistant. Any equipment that might be very hot could be covered or insulated with an asbestos product. Asbestos packing was used in the joints of incinerators that produced chemicals.
Workers were exposed to fibers while they used equipment with asbestos, removed or replaced asbestos-containing products, or they just inhaled fibers that were in the plant’s air. Repairing or maintaining equipment could mean tearing off old asbestos products and replacing them. This could lead to fibers spilling out into the air and being breathed in by those in the workplace.
Some plants mixed chemicals with asbestos to create products. Workers could open up bags of raw asbestos and pour it into equipment, causing clouds of fibers.
One medical journal article published in 1991 stated that in the oil refining and petrochemical industry:
“…exposure to cancer-causing asbestos particles, especially during equipment repair and maintenance, is very high. Up to 90% of workers…had direct and/or indirect contact with asbestos, and more than half of this contact occurred without the use of any kind of precaution, thus these workers are in high risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma, both fatal diseases.”
Anyone who worked in a chemical plant while asbestos was used should get regular check-ups to determine if they’ve been exposed and, if so, whether it impacted their health.
What Dangers Did Asbestos Pose to Chemical Plant Workers?
Asbestos deteriorates and releases toxic, tiny fibers into the air. After they’re inhaled into the lungs, they can cause lung cancer, asbestosis, and pleural mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lining of the lungs and chest cavity, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
The immune system recognizes these fibers as foreign, so cells attack and try to destroy them. But they do not affect the fibers. The cells die, spill out enzymes and injure nearby cells, causing inflammation. This can lead to severe breathing problems (asbestosis), genetic changes in the lung tissue, which may cause cancer, and mesothelioma of the pleura, which lines the lungs.
A study of 286 Norwegian chemical workers exposed to asbestos from 1953 to 1980 found four cases of lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma. This is nearly three times greater than what would be expected from the general public.
Asbestos can also cause peritoneal and pericardial mesothelioma, which are less common than pleural mesothelioma. Pericardial mesothelioma affects the heart’s lining. Fibers can be swallowed and work their way through the digestive tract. If they lodge in the peritoneum (a membrane lining organs and the abdominal cavity), they can cause cellular changes over decades resulting in peritoneal mesothelioma.
There is no safe level of asbestos exposure, and there’s no known threshold level that will not cause mesothelioma. Someone can be heavily exposed but not develop it, while another person with light asbestos exposure can develop the disease. Decades may pass from the time of exposure to a mesothelioma diagnosis.
How Harmful is Mesothelioma to Chemical Plant Workers?
Cancer survival statistics usually involve estimates of the percentage of people with specific characteristics who survive five years after diagnosis. Overall, the five-year survival rate for those with pleural mesothelioma is 10%, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Research involving French cancer registries estimates that the average survival of those with peritoneal mesothelioma was a year after diagnosis. One study of pericardial mesothelioma states the average survival was two months after diagnosis. To put this in context, the American Cancer Society reports the overall colon cancer five-year survival rate is 64%.
The length of time someone survives with mesothelioma depends on many factors. Typically, those diagnosed at a younger age live longer than those who are older when the disease is found. Some mesothelioma types are more aggressive than others. A person with other chronic health problems probably won’t live as long as someone with mesothelioma but is healthier overall.
Call Us Today For A Free Consultation
If you or a loved one worked at a chemical plant and has been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, Satterley & Kelley attorneys can answer your questions, advise you of your rights to compensation, and discuss the necessary steps to protect them. You can reach our Louisville office by calling 502-589-5600 or toll-free at 800-655-2117. You can also fill out our contact form to schedule a free initial consultation.