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Pumps Containing Asbestos

What is a Pump?

Simply put, a pump is a device for moving liquids or gases. Industry uses pumps to move a wide variety of substances, from chemicals to milk; but water, steam, oil, and hot air are some of the most common. Many types of pumps are used as components of a larger mechanical system, using suction or pressure to manage the flow of material from one part of the system to another. For example, a pump is used to bring water up from a well, and move it to your kitchen sink. The human heart is also a pump. Pumps come in many types and sizes. A small pump may fit in the palm of your hand, while a large pump for industrial service may weigh several thousand pounds.

Who Works with Pumps?

Tradesmen in many fields may work directly with or around pumps: plumbers, steamfitters, construction workers, workers at power-generating plants and oil refineries, for example. Other trades working with pumps include: boiler repairmen, maintenance workers, insulators, naval personnel, shipyard workers, and HVAC workers.

Working with or around Pumps can Result in Dangerous Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos exposure from pumps comes primarily from the gaskets and packing. Gaskets are used to create a tight seal at flanges and openings where the pump is attached to pipes and other devices. Some pumps also contain a stuffing box or "gland" around the drive shaft. Packing material is inserted into the box to create a flexible, compressible seal, absorb leaks and ease friction on the moving metal parts of the pump. However, not all pumps incorporate gaskets and packing, and not all gaskets and packing contain asbestos. As a general rule, pumps used for moderate to high-temperature service (such as steam), and for acidic or corrosive chemicals (such as ammonia), most likely have insulation material such as asbestos in the gaskets and packing.

Trades people can be susceptible to asbestos exposure when workers cut and install new gasket and packing materials, and when old or deteriorated materials are removed. When asbestos-containing insulation is applied around a pump, or removed or disturbed during pump maintenance and repairs anyone working directly on the project or in the general vicinity can be at risk for inhaling dangerous asbestos dust.

Factory workers installing manufacturer-specified asbestos gaskets and packing, as well as sales representatives demonstrating pumps and equipment may also incur some risk of asbestos exposure.

U.S. military personnel who were stationed on Naval warships or who worked in Navy shipyards were frequently exposed to asbestos from working with or around pumps. These personnel were often at even higher risk because they worked in very tight and confined quarters where airborne asbestos existed in highly concentrated quantities.

Where are Pumps Found?

Pumps are found in many settings and have many different uses ranging from general household use to use in industrial settings like aluminum plants and military applications such as nuclear power plants and naval vessels. Some pumps, such as sump pumps, have stand-alone applications, but pumps likely to contain asbestos components are generally part of a larger circulating system and are most often found in commercial, municipal, industrial or military settings.

In the home, and in municipal buildings such as schools and hospitals, pumps most likely to contain asbestos components are associated with heating and cooling. Circulating pumps move hot water from the boiler to the fixtures. Air conditioners may have a pump called a compressor which moves heat through the various refrigerant cycles necessary to distribute chilled air through a building.

In industrial settings, many types of pumps are used in heating and cooling systems, in steam-driven power plants and simply to move raw materials, such as ammonia. Condensate, circulator, and boiler feedwater pumps may be part of these systems.

Naval and commercial ships use pumps in their propulsion, heating and cooling systems. Pumps are needed to draw salt water from the ocean, send it through a preheater and into the boilers which produce steam to drive the turbines that power the ship. Pumps also circulate fresh water through the ship for washing, drinking and cleaning. Condensate pumps collect moisture from cooled steam and return it to the boilers. Compressors provide service for refrigeration systems needed to cool air and keep food fresh. Many of these pumps, especially the ones moving steam and hot water, contained asbestos gaskets and packing, and were insulated with asbestos products.

Common Diseases Associated with Asbestos Exposure

The strong link between asbestos exposure and pulmonary disease did not become common knowledge until the mid-1970's. Workers who have handled pumps with asbestos gaskets, packing, or insulation and other workers or supervisory personnel working in the general vicinity, may have inhaled airborne asbestos fibers while on the job. This put them at significant risk for developing one of the following diseases: pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma, asbestos cancer and asbestosis. In addition, workers often brought asbestos fibers home on their clothes which also put their family members at risk for developing one of the above diseases. Those diagnosed with the disease often do not have a favorable mesothelioma prognosis. What's even worse is that with a long latency period it can sometimes take 30 or 40 years following initial asbestos exposure to develop a disease like mesothelioma.

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