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Railroad Workers and Asbestos Exposure

Railroad Workers and Mesothelioma

History of Railroad Workers

The expansion and development of the United States was assisted in great part by the railroad system. Over the last one hundred years, air travel and the use of interstate highways have become preferred modes of transportation over railway travel, but the railroad is still a critical mode of transportation to move passengers and natural resources across the continent.

Steam was the primary form of energy powering trains until the 1950's. These steam engines created an enormous quantity of heat. In order to protect against this immense heat, asbestos containing insulation was frequently used. Asbestos insulation was a favored material because it was inexpensive and had tremendous heat-resistant properties. From the 1950's on, diesel engines began to replace steam engines. Even then, asbestos continued to be used. It was not until the 1970's that it became public knowledge that asbestos exposure had strong links to pulmonary disease and the use of asbestos insulation on new trains was stopped.

Railroad Workers were Frequently Exposed to Asbestos on the Job

As mentioned above, until the 1970's the danger of asbestos exposure was not widely known. Steam train manufacturers almost always used asbestos insulation on boilers, pipes and fireboxes. Johns-Manville Therma Wrap was often used to insulate high temperature pipes and it contained asbestos. Boxcars and cabooses were also insulated with asbestos containing materials as were some of the walls in the train cars themselves. Other materials such as gaskets and sealing cement used to seal pipe joints and valves provided an exposure risk to railroad workers. Even some of the less obvious things like floor tiles, rope, brake linings and clutches contained some form of asbestos insulation or asbestos containing material in them. The extreme heat resistant and fire-proof properties of asbestos made it the insulating material of choice before the mid 70's.

Railroad workers working in and around steam trains or their repair shops were frequently exposed to harmful asbestos dust on the job. These workers were frequently called on to make repairs on parts that were insulated with asbestos. If they worked directly with the asbestos material they may have had to cut and stretch the asbestos material to fit. This resulted in harmful asbestos dust and fibers being released into the air. Products used to seal pipe joints and valves such as gaskets and sealing cement had to be sanded to smooth the surface to provide a tight fit and this too put asbestos particles into the air.

Because asbestos containing materials were used in so many places on trains, even if a railroad worker didn't have direct responsibility for maintenance or repair, asbestos exposure was still likely. This is because the environment itself was prone to being filled with asbestos dust from the work that was being performed all the time. Even inspectors were at risk because of this factor.

Mesothelioma Found in Railroad Workers

There are three main asbestos-related diseases that railroad workers and their families could be at risk for developing. Family members of railroad workers to put at risk because they could inhale asbestos fibers that workers brought home on clothes, shoes and even hair. The illnesses are described below.


Mesothelioma is a serious form of cancer with a notably poor survival rate. The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to airborne asbestos. The most common type is pleural mesothelioma and it originates in the lining of the lungs. Peritoneal mesothelioma originates in the stomach lining and pericardial mesothelioma, a more rare form of the disease, originates in the lining around the heart.

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Smokers who were also exposed to airborne asbestos fibers have a much greater risk of developing lung cancer than smokers who are not exposed to asbestos. Malignant tumors form in the lungs making it extremely difficult to breathe.


Asbestosis is a pulmonary disease that, like mesothelioma, is only caused by asbestos dust exposure. With this particular illness, scar tissue builds in the lungs causing breathing difficulty and reduced blood flow.

It is important to recognize that there may be a long period of time that elapses from initial asbestos exposure to the diagnosis of one of the above three conditions. Lung cancer can take 10 years or more to develop while mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis can take 30 or 40 years. The long latency period contributes to a poor prognosis for mesothelioma patients.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari
Mesothelioma Treatment Guide

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