Resources for Patients and their Families

Freight and Material Handlers Exposed to Asbestos

Freight and Material Handlers

Freight and material handlers perform an extensive array of tasks in the management and transportation of goods, with specific jobs ranging from dragline, conveyor and tractor operators to industrial truck drivers, ship loaders, hand freight laborers, packagers and offloaders (also known as offbearers or offsiders). But regardless of their specific duties, freight and material movers together comprise the engine that (sometimes quite literally) drives our economy forward, transporting every imaginable commodity between storage areas, loading docks, production sites, cities and even countries. These handlers, operators and drivers perform all the tasks required to deliver goods from off the assembly line right to your door or the nearest store. There are currently about 3 million truck drivers employed in the United States and an additional 4 million people working in some other kind of freight or material handling capacity.

Unfortunately, in checking, preparing and moving such a diverse range of items, freight handlers run the risk of working with and around toxic materials which can sometimes lead to asbestos exposure and the subsequent contraction of an asbestos cancer. Truck drivers can be especially susceptible to such an occurrence, as oftentimes they are responsible for the inspection, maintenance and repair of the vitally important brake linings, brake pads, clutch facings and electrical systems on their big rigs (this applies to owner/operators in particular). As we shall see in the next section, such automotive materials can be rife with potentially lethal amounts of asbestos.

Truck Drivers and Other Freight and Material Handlers Are at Risk for Asbestos Exposure on the Job

Since handlers and drivers come into contact with nearly every piece of material or freight that passes through and around the world of shipping, construction and industry, odds are that in many cases these workers have had considerable exposure to asbestos - particularly in the case of items handled and transported between 1950 and 1990, when the over three thousand asbestos products that were in circulation during that time probably passed through their hands at some point. Compounding matters is the fact that many companies and employers were aware of the risks inherent in such labors and did not provide the safeguards, education, and/or protective gear required to safely work in these environments.

In addition to the handling of potentially toxic freight and materials, the trucks, forklifts and other heavy operational machinery used to transport these goods also in all likelihood had asbestos-containing materials (also known as ACM) in their brake linings and clutch facings. Worse still, a study conducted by a team of scientists working in Italy revealed findings of pollution by asbestos fibers in the cabs of some models of trucks, thus ratcheting up the danger of occupational exposure even further. In other words, truck drivers who may have never transported ACM nor tended to their own mechanical repairs are still at risk regarding asbestos disease and for developing mesothelioma.

Even family members of freight handlers, material handlers and truck drivers who were (and, in some cases, still are) occupationally at risk are themselves in danger of having inhaled airborne asbestos dust and fibers brought home via unwashed hair, skin, shoes and clothes.

Freight and Material Handlers Are Exposed to a Variety of Asbestos Products

The following is a list of asbestos-containing products that freight and material handlers and haulers may have come into contact with (where known, the years during which the product was manufactured is listed in parentheses):

Friction/Automotive Materials

American Brake Shoe Co. 121 Super Brakes, American Brake Shoe Co. Abex Brake Shoe, American Brake Shoe Co. Abex Brakeblok, American Brake Shoe Co. Abex Protector, American Brake Shoe Co. American Brakeblok, American Brake Shoe Co. American Eagle, American Brake Shoe Co. Comet, American Brake Shoe Co. Crossing Guard, American Brake Shoe Co. Esline, American Brake Shoe Co. Stopper, American Brake Shoe Co. Velvetouch Organic, American Brake Shoe Co. A.B.K. Bearings, Ferodo Asbestos Brake Lining, Raybestex Asbestos Cover & Pad Set, Raymark/Raytech/Raybestos Balanced Brake Set, Raymark/Raytech/Raybestos Dynamold Drum Brake, Raymark/Raytech/Raybestos Grey Rock, Raymark/Raytech/Raybestos Pyrotorque With Steel Back, Raymark Brake Block, Raymark Drum Brake, Raymark Disk Brake, Raymark Clutch Facing, Raymark Roll Linings, Raymark Automatic Transmission Plates, Raymark Keylock, Raymark Master Blocks, Raymark Molded Reinforced Clutch Facing, Raymark Multibestos, Raymark New Molded Clutch Facing, Raymark Pyro-Coin, Raymark Pyro-Torque, Raymark Ray Bond, Raymark Raybestos, Raymark Rayco, Raymark Raylok, Raymark Raymelt, Raymark Red Demon Disc Brake, Raymark Silver Edge, Raymark Timber King, Raymark Veelok, Wiremold, and UNR Industries, Inc./Unarco Brake Linings (1920-1942).

Electrical Products

Atlas Turner Monobestos (1948-1975), Raymark/Raytech/Raybestos Master Size Elastomer-Coated Asbestos Sleeve, Raymark Cable Filler (1938-1982) and United States Gypsum Company USG Thermalux (Generic) (1961-1965).

Freight and Material Handlers are Susceptible to Developing Mesothelioma and Other Asbestos Diseases

When asbestos dust is inhaled, it becomes lodged in the lungs and the surrounding membrane which irritates the tissue. Over time, what starts as minor irritation can then develop into scar tissue and turn into an asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma. As the scarring increases, one might have difficulty breathing as his or her lungs are constricted, which in turn may lead to high blood pressure and heart failure. Asbestos is also a proven carcinogen that has been linked to many kinds of cancer - most often lung cancer and gastrointestinal cancer. And many decades can sometimes elapse between a freight handler or truck driver's initial exposure and the development of asbestos-related disease, even if the worker has been retired and/or not subjected to exposure for years and years. The time between exposure and presenting symptoms of a disease is called the "latency period". In the following section we will take a closer look at the most common forms of asbestos disease afflicting truck drivers and material handlers.

Malignant Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a malignant cancer that occurs in the mesothelium, which is a membrane that forms the lining of many body cavities, including the abdomen, heart and chest. Mesothelioma cancer is the direct result of asbestos inhalation and has not been linked to any other cause. It is also commonly known as "mesothelioma."

When mesothelioma occurs in the chest (about 75 percent of the time), it is referred to as pleural mesothelioma, and when it appears in the stomach it is called peritoneal mesothelioma. Sometimes mesothelioma can also appear in the lining surrounding the heart, in which case it is known as pericardial mesothelioma. Wherever they may occur, malignant mesothelioma tumors are extremely aggressive and can metastasize quickly to other parts of the body. If caught early, the tumor can be removed before it spreads. However, since initial symptoms are deceptively insignificant-seeming, diagnoses often occur too late for the tumor to be isolated and operated upon. After the tumor has proliferated, doctors can only work to hamper its growth through treatment options such as mesothelioma radiation or chemotherapy, even though the disease itself is incurable. Approximately 3,000 U.S. patients are diagnosed with mesothelioma every year.

Pleural Mesothelioma

A person's chest lining consists of two layers, between which is a minute quantity of lubricating fluid that permits the chest and lungs to expand and contract as one inhales and exhales. At the onset of pleural mesothelioma, this lining of the chest scars and thickens, filling the space between the layers and frequently producing large amounts of additional fluid. The first symptom of pleural mesothelioma - shortness of breath during exercise - is often overlooked or misdiagnosed. As the disease progresses, common symptoms of malignant pleural mesothelioma include loss of appetite, unwanted weight loss, shortness of breath (even at rest), weakness, fatigue, lower back pain, coughing and difficulty swallowing. This disease is often in its advanced stages when its symptoms are finally accurately diagnosed, leading to a poor mesothelioma prognosis for most patients.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

At the onset of peritoneal mesothelioma, a tumor develops within the lining of the abdominal cavity, causing it to thicken around the abdominal organs. Fluid production increases greatly, which in turn leads to abdominal swelling. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include loss of appetite and/or weight, weakness, nausea, and abdominal pains which accompany the abdominal swelling.

Pericardial Mesothelioma

A scarring and cancerous tumor in the tissue around the heart, pericardial mesothelioma is the rarest of the three kinds of mesothelioma and only accounts for less than ten percent of its incidences. Chest pain, palpitations, a persistent cough and shortness of breath are all symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma. Like other mesothelioma tumors, pericardial mesothelioma can quickly metastasize and spread elsewhere into the body.

Lung Cancer (As Caused By Past Asbestos Exposure)

Lung cancer is responsible for the majority of asbestos-related fatalities. Unlike mesothelioma, which can only be contracted via exposure to asbestos, lung cancer can result from exposure to a variety of different substances, including - most aptly in the case of truck drivers and offloaders - exhaust fumes. However, studies reveal that the deadly combination of asbestos exposure and cigarette smoking raises the risk of contracting lung cancer by up to ninety percent over non-smokers with asbestos exposure. As mentioned above, it usually takes at least ten years for drivers and handlers who have been exposed to ACM to exhibit symptoms of asbestos-related lung cancer, and it is not uncommon for it to take up to thirty years for the disease to present. And as with those diagnosed with mesothelioma, individuals who already do have lung cancer can sometimes have no easily detectable symptoms. Nonetheless, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, discomfort when breathing and/or swallowing, loss of appetite and/or weight, coughing up of mucus and blood, hoarseness, chest pain and anemia are all symptoms that can be indicative of lung cancer malignancy.

Asbestosis (A Non-Malignant Respiratory Disease)

Asbestosis, like mesothelioma, also occurs exclusively as the result of working with and around asbestos-containing materials. Simply put, asbestosis is a non-malignant respiratory disease in which the lungs are damaged, inflamed and scarred from the inhalation of harmful asbestos fibers and dust. This in turn can lead to a dry, crackling cough, shortness of breath and even complete respiratory failure. Symptoms of asbestosis usually occur between five to ten years after one's initial exposure to asbestos products. More than half of those who contract asbestosis go on to also develop pleural plaques (a scarring of the lining of the lungs), and it is not uncommon for asbestosis sufferers to contract lung cancer or mesothelioma as well.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari