Resources for Patients and their Families

Brick and Stone Masons Exposed to Asbestos

Bricks, blocks and stones are used for decoration as well as functionality. Brick masons (also known as brick layers or block masons) and stone masons are skilled and trained in using this building material. With bricks and stones you can make walkways, stairways, fences, buildings, and more.

This is a career that requires precise concentration and constant safety. Most training is done on the job and through apprenticeship programs. Classroom training may also be required to learn blueprint reading and sketching. Since this is a job that involves construction, a certain awareness of asbestos must also accompany the position.

Building with Asbestos

Anytime construction is involved, asbestos is somewhere to be found. It was used for many building materials and in various applications. Pipes were wrapped with asbestos insulation, and walls were filled with it. Steel beams were sprayed with asbestos for rust proofing. Adhesives, caulks, glues and cement all risked containing some form of asbestos. Brick masons and stone masons are usually involved in the entire building process, so they risk being exposed to asbestos every step of the way.

Brick masons work with mortar, which contains cement, to adhere the bricks to each other. Stone masons tend to work with both artificial stone, such as that made from concrete, marble chips or other masonry materials, and natural-cut stone like granite, marble and limestone.

Asbestos cement is a hard material that is used in construction for a variety of things, such as roofs and detached buildings. The sturdiness of asbestos cement greatly reduces any health risk from exposure. Unlike asbestos insulation boards that can crumble into breathable dust, asbestos cement is solid. However, if you sand it down or use power tools on it, you risk creating asbestos dust.

The construction industry has been using asbestos building materials for years. Some older buildings have been addressed by asbestos abatement teams to reduce or remove the asbestos from the facility. Since brick masons and stone masons also do repair work and not just new work; they still risk coming into contact with older asbestos that has not yet been removed.

Dangers at Work

It is a given that most occupations come with some chance of work-related injuries. Even so, most of us in today's society have come to expect worker safety to be an important priority of employers, enforced by government regulations. Sadly, even in relatively recent times, these expectations were not always met in terms of exposure to asbestos, and employees were subjected to conditions that placed their health at risk.

Asbestos and Its Health Effects

There are two major kinds of asbestos. Chrysotile, sometimes called "white" asbestos, is the sole mineral of the serpentine category and was the type most commonly utilized. Usually not linked to mesothelioma or asbestos cancer, this type is a relatively pliable form of the mineral. Abrasions on the inner surfaces of the lungs may happen when serpentine particles are breathed in, however. Asbestosis can be the outcome when scar tissues build up in the pulmonary system.

The other category is called amphibole asbestos and is considered more deadly. Lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma, a rare but almost always fatal disease affecting the mesothelium (the tissue that lies between the lungs and the pleural cavity), are the most frequently occurring malignancies that are caused by exposure to amphibole asbestos. Being exposed to amphibole asbestos is also a cause of pericardial or peritoneal mesotheliomas, which affect tissue surrounding the heart and digestive tract, respectively.

Why Asbestos Was Used

Given what we know today, it is ironic that asbestos was utilized when constructing plants and factories and in manufacturing many items due to its ability to save lives. In terms of insulating against combustion and heat, few things can match asbestos, especially chrysotile. The amphiboles had additional traits that caused them to be useful in industrial situations. For instance, amosite has a high iron content, making it impervious to chemical corrosion. "Blue" asbestos, or crocidolite, was frequently used in areas with electrical equipment because of its resistance to electricity. By combining multiple kinds of fibers, many different asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) could be made that could protect lives and property against flames, heat, electrocution and caustic chemicals.

As long as it remained solid, asbestos offered almost no danger. However, as ACMs got older, they were prone to becoming friable, or able to be reduced to powder by hand pressure alone. Asbestos particles, when they are friable, can be easily dispersed in the environment, where they may be easily swallowed or breathed in and thereby cause diseases. Asbestos dust that fell on employees' skin, hair, or clothing could also place others at risk unless effective safety measures, including the use of on-site showers, were enforced. Mesothelioma survival rate is known to be grim, yet early diagnosis and consistent treatment including mesothelioma radiation can improve the prognosis for this disease.

The Hidden Hazard of Asbestos

Asbestos-related diseases, as opposed to typical work-related injuries, which are readily observed and known about immediately following the causing incident, can take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to appear. Given such a lengthy time between exposure to asbestos and the appearance of the resulting disease, the worker might not associate the current health problem with work he or she did many years earlier. New ways to combat mesothelioma are being discovered, and early detection provides the patient and his or her doctor the highest chance to combat the previously always-fatal form of cancer. So, it is vital for folks that worked as brick and stone masons, and those who lived with them, to inform their doctors about the possibility of exposure to asbestos.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari

Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)

Kirklees Council - Q and A, Pollutants and hazardous substances, Asbestos Cement

The Natural Handyman - Harry ... eat slowly, the doctor said you shouldn't inhale your fiber: Asbestos on the Chopping Block

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

US Department of Labor - Bureau of Labor Statistics, Publications, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, Brickmasons, Blockmasons, and Stonemasons