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Due to the variety of materials and machinery used on the job, those working within the construction industry are more prone to health hazards than other occupations. There are a number of toxins that employees may be exposed to that they should be aware of when working. Construction Executive asked Colin Ruggiero, a health expert at Mesothelioma.com, his thoughts on the health and safety regarding potential exposure to harmful toxins. 

Construction Executive: What kinds of toxins are found within the construction industry? 

Colin Ruggiero: While I am primarily familiar with asbestos, silica, formaldehyde, inorganic arsenic and benzene, there are other notable carcinogens and substances to be aware of that can cause health issues. 

CE: Where are they found? 

Colin Ruggiero: It depends on the type of construction field specifically, but these toxins may appear as dust, gas emissions, air pollutants and ingredients in the products they produce. For example, silica is a mineral derived from the earth’s crust. It is found in glass, bricks and concrete. Silica dust poses risks when inhaled, particularly respiratory issues like lung cancer and silicosis. 

Asbestos, another natural mineral, was widely used as an additive during manufacturing processes including cement, insulation, ceiling products and fire-resistant materials. As it is a fiber that is incredibly durable, heat and sound-proof, it was a popular material used in the construction of homes and buildings before regulations in the 1970s widely scaled back the use of asbestos. 

CE: Explain some of the health consequences after exposure. 

Colin Ruggiero: There are real diseases associated with the toxins. Mesothelioma is cancer mainly occurring in the lungs, although it may also manifest in the heart or abdomen. This type of cancer has a latency period of sometimes more than 40 years, meaning that an individual who was exposed to asbestos decades ago prior to stricter regulations could still be diagnosed with mesothelioma today. This cancer also has a low life expectancy and patients have difficulty with treatment. 

Some of the symptoms that indicate mesothelioma include shortness of breath, overall fatigue, cough, abdomen or chest pain, or pleural thickening. Pleural thickening happens when scar tissue develops in the lining of the lungs because of asbestos inhalation. The lining of the lungs (known as the pleura) is delicate, and the abrasiveness of asbestos fibers can permanently damage it.

Formaldehyde has been used for building and construction as it is a composite for wood products but has shown that high exposure levels could lead to cancer. Less severe effects include coughing, nausea, burning eyes and skin irritation. Although some of the toxins listed will not lead to specific cancers like mesothelioma, they can be a risk factor for other cancers and trigger chronic or acute symptoms that can otherwise be avoided. 

CE: Why is asbestos such an important topic for construction workers’ health?

Colin Ruggiero: As a health expert in the mesothelioma space, I’m particularly aware of the detrimental effects of asbestos. I believe that since it was used so rampantly before, and is still used today (although limited), there is potential for construction workers especially to be exposed. 

Actually, the construction industry holds some of the highest rates for those affected by asbestos contamination. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 70-80% of asbestos exposure was connected to construction workers in the 1900s. The recent study also showed that just over 95% of deaths from malignant mesothelioma were primarily linked to the construction industry. Millions of Americans are employed in this occupation and this makes it a dangerous and hazardous industry. 

My intention is not to induce fear, but rather encourage awareness and education about asbestos and similar toxins. As the winter months are often associated with more respiratory complications, construction workers who cannot receive proper ventilation or are exposed to any of the previously mentioned toxins should know of the health consequences. 

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