Cancer Risk for Non-Smokers: Asbestos


Asbestos, which is a widely recognized carcinogen, could be the cause of cancer in individuals who worked on railroads.

What Are the Health Hazards of Asbestos?

The health hazards of asbestos are indisputable. Every single governmental agency and international health organization that has investigated the hazards of asbestos has concluded that asbestos causes lung cancer (as well as other types of cancer) and that there is no “safe” level of exposure as noted below:

National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): “excessive cancer risks have been demonstrated at all fiber concentrations studied to date. Evaluation of all available human data provides no evidence for a threshold or a ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure.” (NIOSH, 1976).

Occupational Safety and Health Administrations (OSHA): “There is no ‘safe’ level of exposure to asbestos for any type of asbestos fiber…Every occupational exposure to asbestos contributes to the risk of getting an asbestos-related disease.” (OSHA Safety and Health Topics: Asbestos).

National Toxicology Program (NTP): “Studies in humans have shown that exposure to asbestos causes respiratory-tract cancer, mesothelioma of the lung and abdominal cavity (pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma), and cancer at other tissue sites.”  (NTP, Report on Carcinogens, Fifteenth Edition).

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):  “Available evidence supports the conclusion that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. The conclusion is consistent with present theory of cancer etiology and is further supported by the many documented cases where low or short-term exposure has been shown to cause asbestos-related disease.” (40 CFR Part 763, April 25, 1986).

United States Surgeon General:  “…there is no level of asbestos exposure that is known to be safe and minimizing your exposure will minimize your risk of developing asbestos-related disease.” (Surgeon General letter about National Asbestos Week, April 1, 2009).

World Health Organization (WHO): “Exposure to chrysotile asbestos poses increased risks for asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma in a dose-dependent manner. No threshold has been identified for carcinogenic risks.”  (WHO, “Chrysotile Asbestos” 1998).

What Cancers Can Asbestos Exposure Cause?

Asbestos causes pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, ovarian cancer, colon cancer and other types of cancer. It is well recognized that nonsmokers with occupational asbestos exposure have a much greater risk of developing lung cancer than non-exposed workers. While OSHA has promulgated Permissible Exposure Levels (PELs) for asbestos, those PELs are designed to only protect against asbestosis (a non-malignant lung disease). The PELs do not protect against cancer and, in fact, OSHA’s most recent asbestos standard concluded that at the current asbestos PEL, “significant risk” remains (3.4 persons per 1000 exposed workers will develop cancer). Similarly, OSHA admits that PELs are not completely protective and the OSHA website candidly states, “OSHA recognizes that many of its permissible exposure limits (PELs) are outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health.”

The Role of Railyards

The railroad industry chose to continue to purchase asbestos products into the 1980s.  Unfortunately, even after stopping the purchase of new asbestos-containing products, many railroads allowed asbestos to remain on railroad equipment, locomotives, and properties into the 2000s which resulted in unnecessary cancer risk to workers.

Railroad uses of asbestos on locomotives in the past:

  • Cab heater line insulation
  • Pipe insulation in locomotive toilets/bathrooms
  • Radiator line insulation
  • Air compressor discharge lines
  • Brake shoes
  • Gaskets
  • Steam boiler insulation
  • Steam generator insulation
  • Railroad uses of asbestos in facilities in the past:
  • Pipe insulation
  • Vinyl floor tile
  • Ceiling tile
  • Drywall and joint compound
  • Other examples of asbestos use on railroads in the past:
  • Brake shoes on railroad cars
  • Asbestos rope used by track crews for “pull-aparts”
  • Welding gloves and welding blankets
  • Asbestos/transite boards in signal cases and towers

A complete understanding of the hazards of asbestos requires a discussion about latency. As it relates to asbestos, latency refers to the time between the asbestos exposure and the subsequent development of cancer. It is generally accepted that the latency period between asbestos exposure and later developing cancer is between 20-50+ years. This means that a railroad worker could be exposed to asbestos in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s and not develop a railroad asbestos related cancer until today. Thankfully the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) allows workers to bring claims long after they retire from the railroad, even if they retired decades ago.

Doran and Murphy PLLC has represented engineers, conductors, brakemen, switchmen, carmen, car inspectors, signalmen, signal maintainers, locomotive mechanics, machinists, electricians, pipefitters, sheet-metal workers, clerks, bridge and building workers, carpenters, trackmen, track laborers, machine operators and other crafts in cancer cases against railroads all over the country.

How Long Have the Hazards of Asbestos Been Known?

The railroads have known that asbestos causes cancer since at least 1958.  Documents obtained from the railroad industry trade group, known as the Association of American Railroads (AAR), document regular meetings during which the hazards of asbestos exposure were discussed. A meeting of railroad medical representatives in 1958 explicitly discussed that asbestos was a cause of cancer. This landmark meeting was attended by over 45 of the nation’s largest railroads.

Responses by the Railroad Industry

Unfortunately, many railroads took little or no action to protect employees until only recently. For instance, as early as 1935, railroad medical department representatives attended AAR meetings and discussed recommendations that workers use respiratory protection, that the workplace air be tested to determine the levels of airborne dust, that workers be warned of dust hazards, and that water be utilized to reduce airborne dust levels. The sad truth is that railroads did not implement these measures until decades later, and only after workers began getting sick with cancer. So why were the railroads slow to act? One possible reason is that they did not want to alert railroad workers that asbestos was dangerous because then the workers would make asbestos claims. In fact, as far back as 1937, certain railroads met and openly discussed various recommendations to reduce asbestos exposure but then candidly stated that “It must be understood, however, that these recommendations are not to be posted or given out but are for the information of the supervision exclusively.”

Such a policy of only providing the safety recommendations to supervisors is reckless and ignores the importance of worker education. The rationale for the policy was addressed in a July 1937 document: “It is suggested that the above recommendations be communicated directly to the foremen involved. Publicity on the above might suggest the making of claims.”

Railyards That Did Not Provide Proper Warning

As part of prior railroad cancer litigation, Doran and Murphy PLLC has obtained copies of the safety rule books of almost all of the major railroads and their predecessors:

  • New York Central
  • Pennsylvania Railroad
  • Penn Central
  • Erie Railroad
  • Erie Lackawanna
  • Lehigh Valley
  • Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail)
  • Norfolk and Western Railway
  • Southern Railway
  • Nickel Plate
  • Norfolk and Southern Railway
  • Chessie System
  • Louisville and Nashville
  • Family Lines
  • Seaboard Coastline
  • CSX Transportation
  • Missouri Pacific Railroad
  • Southern Pacific Railroad
  • Union Pacific Railroad
  • Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad
  • Texas and Pacific Railroad
  • Chicago and North Western Railway
  • Grand Trunk and Western Railroad
  • Illinois Central Railroad
  • Canadian National
  • and other railroads

None of these railroad safety rule books warned workers of the potential cancer hazards of asbestos exposure until only recently.

Reach Out to A Railroad Injury Lawyer for Help Filing a Claim

The railroads’ decision not to warn their employees is evidence of negligence under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) and makes them liable for any resulting lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Similarly, the failure to inspect and test the railroad workplace, failure to provide respiratory protection, and failure to implement an industrial hygiene program to protect employees also constitute negligence under the FELA and allow railroad workers to obtain compensation for their cancer.

If you have been affected by cancer after working at a railyard, call a railroad injury lawyer from Doran and Murphy for help with a potential lawsuit.

Non-Smoker Lung Cancer for Railroad Workers
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