The position of ‘engineer’ can actually refer to many different jobs in many different industries, including ship builders, electrical engineers, construction engineers, railroad engineers, and chemical engineers. These disparate fields actually share one unfortunate feature – many people working in these professions were exposed to asbestos while on the job. As a result of this continual exposure, many engineers who worked from the post-World War II period through the 1980s are still at risk of becoming ill, as the delay between first exposure and first symptoms of illness can be decades.

Asbestos was used heavily for insulation and fire-proofing applications, and was therefore a part of many different materials and products. Some people worked with it directly, spraying or applying it to areas where fires could start. Others wore it on their body in the form of protective clothing. The strength and the danger of asbestos lies in its dual nature – it is strong as stone but as flexible as cloth. These features make it ideal as a fire retardant, but unfortunately also cause aggressive diseases, like asbestosis and mesothelioma, in those who breathe in the fibers. Though the actual mechanism of asbestos’s cancerous actions is unknown, researchers do agree that the fibers somehow mutate or damage the DNA of otherwise healthy cells to turn them malignant.

Asbestos and Engineering

Which engineers were exposed to the substance, and when? There are two rules of thumb to determine the possibility of exposure while working in a particular facility. First, if this facility made use of fire, caustic chemicals, electricity, or open flames, it is very likely that asbestos may have been used somewhere in the building for protection and fire management. Second, the building must have been constructed and outfitted before 1980. Beyond these requirements, where the asbestos may have been located – and therefore who might have been exposed – depends on the particular engineering field that worked in the facility and thus how asbestos was used by these engineers.

In addition, the type of asbestos used will also affect who may have been exposed. There are six different types of asbestos that are used in industrial applications. Chrysotile, or white asbestos, was most commonly used in both construction and electrical applications, and accounts for 95% of the asbestos found in buildings in the U.S. There are five other types of amphibole asbestos. Despite arguments to the contrary, all of these forms are dangerous.

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