Coal mining has always been known as one of the most dangerous occupations considering the underground working conditions and all the potential hazards present in that environment. However, one danger that hasn’t always been acknowledged is asbestos exposure. Due to its heat resistance and durability properties, for a long time, it was considered a “miracle mineral” and it was widely used in the construction industry, especially large factories and ships.
Asbestos has been mined since ancient civilizations and even then, the workers in those mines were noted to present a higher chance of illness and premature death. Regardless of these known health risks, asbestos mining continued for hundreds of years, reaching its peak during the Industrial Revolution. However, not all miners exposed to asbestos were explicitly mining for asbestos minerals. Approximately 15 percent of all coal mines in America were found to contain dangerous levels of asbestos.
The most common way for asbestos to enter the body is through breathing. Once the asbestos fibers get inside the body, most likely in the lungs, it can cause serious health problems. Asbestos fibers are very hard to destroy which means that once they are inhaled, they remain in place and cause the disease. The most common illnesses associated with asbestos exposure is asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer.
The amount and duration of the exposure is the most important factor that determines your chance of developing an asbestos-related disease. There is no such thing as a “safe level” of asbestos exposure, but people who are exposed only rarely over a short period of time are less likely to be affected in a major way. It has been found that people who smoke and also have been exposed to asbestos are much more likely to develop lung cancer.
Age is also an important factor in cases of mesothelioma. The younger the people are when the asbestos exposure occurs, the more likely they are to develop the deadly disease. Many children were diagnosed with mesothelioma when their only exposure to asbestos was from the dust brought home on the clothing on family members that worked with the dangerous mineral.
Mining is the profession where the workers are most likely to be exposed to dangerous amounts of asbestos. While mining for asbestos ended in 2002 in the US, many miners have been exposed since then because some minerals, for example, talc and vermiculite, are contaminated with asbestos. Moreover, some equipment that miners use is known to contain this dangerous substance. Asbestos-related diseases take a long time to develop so most people might start just now showing the symptoms even though their exposure happened decades ago. At the same time, miners are not the only ones affected. People who live or used to live near asbestos mines are also at risk of developing an illness because of their exposure to the toxic substance.
We now know that there is a clear connection between mesothelioma and asbestos exposure, yet, the number of deaths continues to grow. Most people diagnosed with this condition live for about a year after they have been diagnosed. Early detection has a great influence on the patient’s condition and outcome.
As with any occupational hazard, the first and most important step is making sure that those who are at risk understand the importance of following the health and safety protocols and that those people are aware of the risks that they are exposed to. Even though mesothelioma has been overlooked compared to other forms of cancer when it comes to cancer research, new developments in screening and treatment options may offer the victims of asbestos exposure a higher chance than what they used to have in the past.
While it is widely accepted that mining is a dangerous job, according to the regulations set by the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), employers are required to take all reasonable precautions in order to protect the workers from asbestos exposure. Failure to do so is a violation of the workers’ right to a safe environment and leads to people suffering the consequences of working around this harmful mineral.
(By Gregory A. Cade)