Paper mills take wood pulp or other materials such as linen and cotton and make them into paper. While archaic paper mills were driven by animal or water power, contemporary mills make use of heavy machinery to refine and beat the pulp, then form, press, dry, and smooth the paper. Most modern machines are based on the Fourdrinier machine, which uses plastic mesh to create sheets of paper out of wet pulp.

All this machinery requires constant maintenance. Since, like all machines, it can become hot in the process of normal operation, insulating materials are required to keep the parts functioning and prevent accidental fires. Insulation is especially important in this case because of the high flammability of the product being manufactured. Between the late 1800s and the 1970s, this insulation often contained asbestos, a mineral that is very heat resistant and was available easily and cheaply. Not only was insulation used in the machines, but it was also sometimes included in the pulp because of its resistance to chemicals like acids. Though the use of asbestos has since been discontinued, workers in paper mills were for years exposed to this deadly substance.

Asbestos and Paper Mills

The International Agency for Research on Cancer conducted a study in France in 2002 that focused on people who had worked in the pulp and paper industry for at least one year. The group studied consisted of 63,000 men from 13 different countries who worked in the industry between 1945 and 1996. About 22,650 of these men or 36 percent had been exposed to asbestos fibers. Among these men, 14 had died as a result of a rare asbestos-related cancer, pleural mesothelioma. Of the 47,000 men who had not been exposed to asbestos while on the job, 10 also died of mesothelioma. While these numbers may not seem noteworthy, it is a fact that the cancer rate of those exposed to asbestos was over double that of those who were not.

An Italian research team studied workers from a factory that made drying machines for textiles as well as paper machines. The 234 workers that were part of the study had all been exposed to three different types of asbestos that were found in the cement used for insulation. Six of the people in the study had a form of lung disease and one was diagnosed with “pleural plaques.”

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