Welders work with electricity or intense heat to connect pieces of metal. For decades asbestos products were integral to the job. Those who worked while using this mineral fiber was common had a high risk of developing asbestos-related diseases, including deadly cancers.
What Do Welders Do?
Welding is a process where heat, pressure, or a combination of the two are used to partially melt and join pieces of metal. After the weld solidifies, it creates a permanent bond. This relatively low-cost method of connecting metal provides high joint strength.
Welders could work in places where asbestos was heavily used: construction sites, power plants, shipyards, chemical plants, oil refineries, and steel mills. They might work on structural steel, pipes, turbines, and boilers. Welders could be anywhere pieces of metal needed to be joined.
What are the Dangers of Asbestos?
Asbestos has been used in thousands of products for hundreds of years. It was first used on a mass scale during the Industrial Revolution until the late 1970s, when compelling medical evidence of its health hazards could no longer be denied.
Asbestos was used in homes, factories, and industrial sites. It’s heat and fire-resistant, doesn’t corrode or conduct electricity, and was plentiful and cheap during its peak use.
Fibers are hazardous when they’re airborne. They’re tiny and light, so when these products were installed, tampered with, cut, drilled, sanded, used, deteriorated, or removed, fibers were often released into the air. Anyone in the area could swallow or inhale them.
After fibers enter the body, they may end up in many places, including:
- Digestive tract
- Pleura (the membrane covering the lungs and chest cavity)
- Pericardium (the membrane covering the heart)
- Peritoneum (the membrane covering abdominal organs and the abdominal cavity)
The body will recognize asbestos fibers as dangerous, foreign material. White cells will try but fail to destroy them. These cells die and spill out enzymes, injuring and inflaming nearby tissue. Over years or decades, this process results in genetic mutations that cause different types of cancer, depending on the location. They include:
- Lung cancer
- Pleural mesothelioma
- Pericardial mesothelioma
- Peritoneal mesothelioma
If there are enough fibers in the lungs, scarring and inflammation can severely limit breathing and cause asbestosis.
How Were Welders Exposed to Asbestos?
Welders worked with asbestos products and frequently around other trades who used them too. Their work spaces were often cramped and without good ventilation, which made the problem of airborne fibers worse.
Welders used welding rods as part of their work. They’re metallic rods or sticks used to melt and create a bond between other pieces of metal. Some of these rods were coated with a mixture of up to 15 percent asbestos. As these rods were used, fibers were emitted in front of the welders. They also wore asbestos-containing protective clothing, mitts, coats, aprons, and gloves.
Before welders worked on a piece of metal, it could be covered in asbestos insulation. They would need to remove it, sending fibers into the air. If they worked in areas where others installed, repaired, or replaced asbestos products, they might inhale fibers on the work site.
How Dangerous is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is an aggressive, rare, and fatal cancer. Treatment may improve your quality of life and extend it, but it won’t cure you.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) defines “relative survival rate” as comparing people having a type of cancer at a given stage to the overall population. A five-year relative survival rate of 25 percent would mean that these people have about a quarter the chance as those who don’t have that cancer type or stage to be alive at least five years after diagnosis.
Pleural mesothelioma’s overall five-year relative survival rate is 12 percent. If the disease is found early and hasn’t spread by the time you’re diagnosed, the rate improves to 20 percent. If it’s widely spread, the rate drops to eight percent.
A study of pericardial mesothelioma patients found they lived, on average, just two months after diagnosis. A 2013 European Journal of Cancer article discussed the outcomes for 108 peritoneal mesothelioma patients. Almost half (43.6 percent) were alive seven or more years after treatment ended.
To put things in perspective, the ACS estimates the average five-year relative survival rate for all cancers for White Americans is 68 percent and 63 percent for African Americans as of 2021.
Your prognosis depends on many factors, including if you have other chronic health conditions, age, and mesothelioma type.