During the 1950s, the railroad workers who tended the new steam engines were exposed to asbestos. The heat-resistant material was used to insulate the trains and protected both cargo and passengers from the intense heat created by the steam engine. Railroad companies favored asbestos insulation because it was cheap, readily available, and highly effective. What they didn’t know was that they were also endangering their employees’ health.
When train engines switched from steam to diesel power, the use of asbestos insulation continued. Concerns about the insulation use weren’t raised until the 1970s when a link was finally made between asbestos fibers and pulmonary diseases. Once the link was found, railroad companies stopped using the asbestos insulation. Unfortunately, for many employees, it was too late.
Railroad Workers and Asbestos Exposure
Prior to the 1970s, no one suspected that insulation created from asbestos fibers would ever be a problem. Since it seemed safe and was effective and cheap, railroad companies used it for insulating pipes, boilers, fireboxes, train car walls, boxcars, and cabooses. In addition, many components in the cars and engines themselves also used products that contained asbestos, such as gaskets and sealing cement.
It would have been very unusual for anyone who worked in the railroad industry to not have experienced some exposure to asbestos. This was particularly true for railroad workers who made repairs or installed insulation. Employees tasked with cutting or stretching the asbestos insulation likely inhaled a great deal of the fibrous material.
The sheer number of places and ways that asbestos products were used by the railroad means that even railroad workers who weren’t tasked with handling maintenance or installation work were likely exposed to the fibers. Some railroad inspectors even developed asbestos-related illnesses because the light-weight fibers hang in the air for a long time.
Asbestos is mineral with one of two types of fibers: spiral-shaped or needle-shaped. These fibers often break off of components when they are abraded and take to the air. Once there, the microscopic particles are easily inhaled or ingested. Inside the body, the fibers embed themselves into the lining of the lungs, heart, or stomach, causing scar tissue and possibly tumors to eventually form. It can take anywhere from 10 to 40 years from the initial exposure to asbestos before the early symptoms appear.
Anyone who once earned their livelihood as a railroad worker is at risk for developing at least one of the serious diseases linked to asbestos. Since the fibers were often transported from the station to the house via the employees clothing and hair, family members may also be at risk.
Mesothelioma has the distinction of being the most common disease connected to asbestos. It’s difficult to diagnose and treat, which means the survival rate is low. The only reported cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos fibers. There are three types of mesothelioma: pleural mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma, and peritoneal mesothelioma.
Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer
While mesothelioma is the most common type of cancer connected to asbestos, research indicates that smokers who were also railroad workers and inhaled asbestos are far more likely to develop lung cancer and malignant tumors than their non-smoking co-workers.
Exposure to asbestos dust while working for the railroad puts former railroad employees at risk for a pulmonary disease called asbestosis, which restricts blood flow and causes breathing issues.
The best chance for beating all asbestos-related illnesses is catching them early via preventative screenings. If you believe you’ve been exposed to asbestos, tell your doctor to arrange for regular screenings.