The lumber industry and paper industry have deep roots in Cowlitz County. The abundance of forests in the area as well as the movement of local rivers allowed these mills to have access not only to wood that could be processed into pulp but also water for use in that process.
Some local mills have been a part of our community for around a century, and to this day, much of the local economy relies on wood products. Unfortunately, these longstanding pillars of our community may also have exposed workers to dangerous asbestos fibers.
Where might asbestos exposure occur in paper mills?
While the government limited asbestos use in the late 20th century, mills constructed before those regulations likely contain asbestos in many areas.
The equipment in older mills could contain asbestos in steam pipe insulation, gaskets packing, and refractories. The high heat involved in the papermaking process meant that pipes, vessels and boilers needed insulation. The heat-resistant properties of asbestos made it a common component of these systems as a result. Asbestos boards and other equipment in electrical systems may also contain this dangerous substance.
Asbestos might also be a component of many parts of the building a paper mill operates in. Insulation, shingles, siding, floor tiles and other materials may contain asbestos in an attempt to protect the structure from fire. Industrial adhesives used in construction might also contain asbestos.
In addition, paper workers may have experienced asbestos exposure simply because of the substances used during the papermaking process. Talc has long been used as a filler in paper production, and this material could be contaminated with asbestos. Historically raw asbestos fibers were also used in the paper making process.
How much risk of asbestos exposure have paper mill workers faced?
When breathed in, asbestos fibers can become embedded in the lungs. There, asbestos fibers can cause inflammation and scarring which limits the lungs’ ability to function properly. Asbestos is also a known carcinogen, commonly linked to mesothelioma as well as other cancers.
Because of the many ways that paper mills historically used asbestos, workers in any part of the mill might have been exposed. Workers who handled asbestos could easily have breathed harmful asbestos. Performing maintenance on either the building or the machinery could cause asbestos contained within those structures to be released into the air. A variety of different studies have recognized the increased asbestos exposure risks faced by workers in the paper industry.
A 1997 study of pulp and paper mill workers published in the American Journal of Epidemiology noted that cancer rates were “significantly associated” with the amount of time that those people worked in the industry. These included asbestos-related cancer like mesothelioma.
One 2001 study indicated that Swedish workers involved in the pulping process between 1960 and 1989 face increased risk of exposure, with around 35 percent of workers in the study exposed to asbestos. As a result, these workers faced increased rates of mesothelioma, lung cancer and a variety of other cancers. An earlier Swedish study indicated that as many as 70 percent of workers experienced “certain” or “probable” exposure on the job.
If you or a loved one developed mesothelioma after working at an area paper mill, you may want to seek experienced guidance to help you explore your options. There may be financial support available to help you address the cost of treatment and the impact that asbestos exposure has had on your life.