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Farming is an industry that has been connected to many mesothelioma diagnoses and asbestos-related diseases. There were 2.78 million farms in 1970 when asbestos was still in frequent use, exposing agricultural workers daily as they worked with machinery and within buildings made with asbestos-containing materials.

01. Overview

How Are Farmers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure?

Asbestos was used frequently from the 1930s to the 1970s, before knowledge spread regarding the risks of exposure and asbestos-related diseases, including the development of malignant mesothelioma. In 2016 there were 856,300 agriculture workers, though the number of workers in the industry was much higher at the peak of asbestos use when there were around 732,000 more farms in business.

Both men and women have been put at risk of asbestos exposure, especially with the potential for secondhand exposure to family members when asbestos dust is brought home on clothing. Within the farming industry, there were many trades that were at risk for exposure to the toxin.

At-Risk Trades
  • Agricultural equipment mechanics
  • Agricultural equipment operators
  • Dairy farmers
  • Farmhands
  • Poultry farmers
  • Ranchers
  • Sharecroppers/sharefarmers
  • Sheep, goat or cattle farmers
  • Vegetable farmers/market farmers

Within these trades, workers that operated, maintained or repaired agricultural machinery were at risk of asbestos exposure. Brakes, brake pads and brake linings, insulation, gaskets and valves, seals, clutches, engine parts and other mechanical components that faced high heat and friction often contained asbestos for durability and fireproofing. Before the 1980s, most trucks and tractors were standard operation instead of automatic, putting heavy wear on components like clutch parts as they pulled and maneuvered heavy equipment, requiring frequent replacements. During maintenance, asbestos fibers could easily become airborne, exposing operators and farm mechanics.

In addition to farming equipment, structures like barns and farmhouses have also posed health risks. Old farm buildings are known to have been built with asbestos products, including insulation, asbestos cement, floor tiles, roofing, siding, paint, piping and other construction materials. As these buildings deteriorate throughout the years, crumbling and cracked materials may release asbestos fibers into the air, which can then be inhaled, putting farmers at risk for developing mesothelioma.

High mesothelioma mortality rates have also been seen in countries and areas where asbestos occurs naturally. When tilling fields and tending to crops, farmers have disturbed natural mineral deposits, releasing asbestos fibers into the air. Case studies looking at farmers working near naturally occurring chrysotile asbestos have seen an increased risk in mesothelioma deaths and the development of asbestos-related illnesses.

The most recent data regarding mesothelioma cancer and farming spans from 1999 – 2012. Research shows 44 farmer and rancher crop production mesothelioma deaths were reported during this time period, along with 24 farmer and rancher deaths in the animal production trade. Together, the 68 deaths accounted for 1.17% of all mesothelioma deaths during the time period. In 1999, farming and agricultural production were listed within the top ten high-risk occupations for cancer-related deaths, accounting for 4.1% of all mesothelioma deaths.

Asbestos use declined after the 1970s with very limited use today, but many farmers are still at risk of developing malignant mesothelioma due to its long latency period. It can take 10 – 50 years for the cancer to develop, so cases resulting from exposure decades ago are just now emerging.

02. Preventing Exposure

Preventing Asbestos Exposure

Many regulations have been put into place by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Environmental Protection Agency to protect farmers from the risks of asbestos and other hazardous substances and pollutants that have been known to cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, pleural plaques and other diseases. Most asbestos regulations for the agricultural industry center around the removal of farm buildings, including:

  • Asbestos surveys should be done prior to the demolition of farm buildings.
  • If asbestos is suspected or found in farm buildings, licensed asbestos abatement contractors need to be hired for proper removal.
  • Owners must consult with local authorities in regards to demolition requirements, as they may need to formally state their plan to demolish farm buildings.
  • Asbestos removed from farm buildings must be disposed of properly.

Most asbestos and toxic substance regulations for the agricultural industry fall under the National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollution (NESHAP), which pertains to the renovation and demolition of buildings that contain friable amounts of asbestos above a certain threshold. Any amount of exposure is harmful, but large quantities pose a larger risk of causing asbestos illnesses, which is why thresholds are established. Aside from government regulations that have been put into place to protect farmers, workers should take care when dealing with equipment or materials that may still contain the toxin to prevent harmful exposure.

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