Working as a stone mason requires physical strength and endurance. In most cases, it is generally considered a safe profession. However, this was not always so. For a few decades, stone masons worked with materials and products that contained asbestos. Although it is now illegal to use this mineral, the effects of handling it decades ago are still being felt today.
Asbestos was once considered a miracle material in the building and construction industry. In addition to being extremely flame retardant, the material is very lightweight and at the same time, super strong. This makes it much easier and less expensive to work with than other alternatives at the time. Stone masons handled asbestos-containing cement regularly prior to the 1980s. Given its lightweight and strong nature, it was used to strengthen cement and other materials. It wasn’t until 1978 that the effects of this material started becoming known to the general public.
When agitated, materials that contain asbestos release millions of asbestos particles into the air. When they are breathed in, they enter the lungs and become lodged there. Over time, small microscopic tears develop which lead to scarring and in many cases an incurable form of cancer called mesothelioma. Other respiratory illnesses are also associated with asbestos exposure.
Stone masons working today generally do not have to worry about exposure to asbestos unless they are involved in some sort of demolition or reconstruction project. If undisturbed, asbestos will sit dormant and inactive. Some type of agitating force is required in order to get the particles into the air.
Sadly, because of this history of asbestos use in the construction industry, many stone masons have contracted asbestos-related diseases. According to the CDC, between the years of 1985 and 1992, 19 brickmasons and stonemasons died of asbestosis, a potentially deadly accumulation of scar tissue in the chest. An Italian study found that bricklayers, stonemasons, and tile setters had a 50% increased risk of lung cancer, even adjusted for smoking habits. Asbestos is known to cause certain types of lung cancer, along with mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest or abdomen.