The Oily Truth about Asbestos Asbestos Risks Remain All Too Real as Our Oil Consumption Continues

Most of us are concerned about the impact that we have on our environment, and many of us are taking the necessary steps to reduce our carbon footprint, like reducing our energy use at home and driving hybrid vehicles. There is a vast array of changes that we could make in an effort to secure a safer future for our environment, but what about protecting our health, too? There is an issue that affects both the environment and our health, and that is our reliance on oil refineries right here in the U.S. Not only do the refineries pollute our air, but they also contain high levels of asbestos, a naturally occurring, but highly toxic, mineral. Previous exposure to asbestos is the only confirmed cause of pleural mesothelioma, also known as asbestos cancer.

There are about 150 operating oil refineries within the United States, all constructed before 1976 and the initiation of asbestos usage regulations in the early 1980s by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Prior to these regulations, asbestos was widely used due to its insulating capabilities and was found in a variety of construction materials, including insulation, drywall compound, acoustical plaster, roofing tiles, floor and ceiling tiles and even duct tape. Because the oil refining process requires extremely high temperatures, pipes were generally lined with asbestos-containing insulation.

There are 150 oil refineries in operation in the U.S. that were built before the EPA regulated asbestos use.©

Asbestos is not considered dangerous unless it is damaged and subsequently becomes friable. In oil refineries, the most likely cause of damage is a result of aging and corroding pipes, fire, or explosion. If damaged, asbestos fibers can become airborne, putting individuals (such as oil refinery workers) at risk of inhalation. If asbestos fibers are inhaled, their claw-like composition permits them to cling to the pleural lining of the lungs for decades before an afflicted individual may begin to suffer from common mesothelioma cancer symptoms, including chronic cough and breathing difficulties. The latent period associated with this disease is 20 to 50 years, so an individual who was exposed years ago may one day be diagnosed with this fatal disease and not even expect it. There are mesothelioma treatment options, but there is no cure, and a diagnosis is essentially a death sentence that could have been avoided had the individual not been exposed to asbestos.

Oil refinery workers are at a heightened risk of developing mesothelioma, and some may have been exposed to asbestos without even understanding the potential health implications. However, it is not only the workers who are at an increased risk. The residents who live near U.S. refineries also face the risk of asbestos inhalation, especially if there is a fire or explosion. If asbestos fibers become airborne, they can travel to areas nearby via wind currents and may be inhaled by innocent residents and their children.

It is crucial that we recognize not only the environmental impact of U.S. oil refinery operations, but the health and safety issues as well. Decreasing our reliance on fossil fuel use and closing the oil refineries would protect our environment and ultimately lead to a decrease in occupational asbestos exposure. If fewer people are exposed to asbestos, fewer people will be affected by mesothelioma cancer, and that is one trend that we can all buy into.


DAVE LATIMER represents the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center, an asbestos health resource site dedicated to spreading knowledge about mesothelioma and the hazards of asbestos exposure.