Pennsylvania and Asbestos Exposure

In a period of only 20 years, from 1980 to 2000, more than 3,000 Pennsylvanians died due to asbestos-related diseases. Most of these deaths occurred in urban areas, where manufacturing has been prevalent throughout much of Pennsylvania’s history. The deaths were largely attributed to asbestosis, in which inhaled asbestos fibers cause scarred and thickened lung tissue. The state also has natural silicate mineral deposits from which chrysotile asbestos was mined.

Asbestos materials were developed before the Civil War due to the need for flame-retardant substances, given wooden buildings and the use of lanterns and gaslights. Asbestos became a common ingredient, used in everything from roofing shingles to floor tiles and wall insulation to ceiling materials. It was later used to insulate pipes from cold and electrical currents. Even up into the late 1970s, asbestos was still widely used.

Manufacturing in steel mills and shipyards, both industries found in Pennsylvania, posed their own problems, exposing thousands upon thousands of workers to asbestos products. The great necessity for fire protection at sea led to widespread use of asbestos in shipbuilding. Subsequently, any workers involved were exposed heavily to friable asbestos, a type of the material that’s capable of being crumbled to powder by a human hand.

In steel mills, flames and high heat are unavoidable. Asbestos was used in many processing areas, such as ovens, steam pipes and boilers, as well as in clothing meant to protect workers. Instead, the aprons, leggings, gloves and masks designed to shield created health hazards. Few were spared exposure due to the nature of the work environment, and everyone from pourers to welders, and furnace operators to inspectors were at risk.

In an unfortunate twist, additional mineral materials were shipped into Pennsylvania from Montana in the form of vermiculite ore contaminated with tremolite. Tremolite is a silicate mineral with the same friable structure as asbestos. The ore was processed to use in various products, including attic insulation. Not only were workers exposed, but due to the method of processing, fibers were released into the air. Anyone who lived or worked near these plants was exposed. Ten different locations in Pennsylvania received these ore shipments.

Hundreds of thousands of workers have been exposed to asbestos in the last century. Most were not warned, and all are potentially at risk for diseases even decades after exposure. Asbestos was also used in schools and other businesses, increasing the numbers of those at risk.