If you’re operating under the assumption that mesothelioma and other workplace asbestos-related diseases only strike blue-collar workers, think again.
Read on to learn about a few of the countless famous people who died from asbestos exposure.
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A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health revealed that asbestos related diseases were listed as the cause of death in 39,275 people within the US and 22,321 individuals worldwide.
When it comes to mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases, it doesn’t matter if you’re a household name or have lived a life of obscurity — there is no discrimination. Many of these people were exposed at their workplace and didn’t find out about it years later when they were diagnosed with Mesothelioma.
Below, we’ll take a look at famous people who died from asbestos exposure — specifically from their place of work — including actors, a pro football player, an Olympic wrestler, and a singer/songwriter.
Famous People Who Died From Asbestos-Induced Mesothelioma
1. Steve McQueen
Nicknamed the “King of Cool,” actor Steve McQueen is one of the most famous mesothelioma victims. He was one of Hollywood’s leading men of the 60s and 70s and became famous for his roles in The Towering Inferno, Bullitt, and The Magnificent Seven. McQueen claimed status as the world’s highest-paid movie star in 1974.
Steve McQueen was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 1979. By October 1980 his cancer was widespread, and he died of heart failure on November 7, 1980, at the age of 50.
A few months prior to his death, McQueen stated in an interview that his mesothelioma was caused by asbestos exposure in two different professions. While serving in the United States Marine Corps, he recounted removing asbestos from the pipes of the engine room of a ship. He also cited his exposure to inhaling asbestos fibers in fire retardant racing gear and the asbestos used in movie set insulation.
2. Paul Gleason
Famous for his role as the principal of the 80s movie The Breakfast Club, Paul Gleason appeared in over 60 films and TV shows including Seinfeld, Friends, All My Children, and Die Hard.
Gleason passed away on May 27, 2006, a short 3 weeks after being diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. It’s believed Gleason’s asbestos exposure occurred while working on building sites as a teen.
3. Merlin Olsen
Besides being known as a longtime NBC pro football broadcaster, Merlin Olsen is recognized as one of the greatest tackles in the history of the NFL. He also had an acting career that included his own series, Father Murphy, and his role as Jonathan Garvey made him a beloved member of the Little House on the Prairie cast.
Olsen was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2009 and passed away shortly after, in March 2010 at the age of 69.
Olsen’s exposure to asbestos began with a summer job on a construction site at age 11 and continued with a lifetime of exposure, including the materials used on Hollywood sets.
4. Christie Hennessy
An Irish folk singer and songwriter, Christie Hennessy is best known for his songs “All the Lies that You Told Me,” “Roll Back the Clouds,” and “Don’t Forget Your Shovel.”
The singer was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in May 2007, dying at the age of 62, just 7 months later.
Hennessy’s exposure to asbestos was the tragic result of decades of working as a decorator and painter in London, including rubbing down asbestos pipe covers prior to painting.
5. Elmo Zumwalt
Elmo R Zumwalt Jr. was a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, who went on to become the youngest man to serve as the US Chief of Naval Operations.
Along with many other members of the US Navy, Zumwalt developed mesothelioma as a result of his exposure to asbestos while aboard U.S. naval ships.
Diagnosed in July 1999, Zumwalt died on January 2, 2000, at 79 years of age.
6. Hamilton Jordan
White House chief of staff during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Hamilton Jordan was instrumental in negotiating the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979.
As the result of his exposure to asbestos, while serving in Vietnam, Jordan died of peritoneal mesothelioma on May 20, 2008.
7. Terry McCann
Terry McCann was a wrestling gold medalist in the 1969 Olympics. While training for the Olympics, he spent a few weeks working in a nearby oil refinery in Oklahoma.
It never occurred to him that the fine, silvery dust he brushed from his hair and clothes each night, residue from the asbestos used to maintain the refinery’s equipment, would eventually kill him.
Terry’s diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma came in the spring of 2005, and he passed away a year later at the age of 72.
Terry McCann’s story is evidence that even minimal, brief exposure to asbestos is deadly.
8. Warren Zevon
Singer-songwriter Warren Zevon is best known for songs like “Werewolves of London,” and “Keep Me in Your Heart.”
In August 2002 Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma. The cancer invaded his liver and wreaked havoc on his lungs, and he died just over a year later at the age of 56.
Zevon was most likely exposed to asbestos as a young boy while playing in the attic of his father’s Arizona carpet store, although there is also speculation that he was exposed in a factory from the lyrics in his song, “The Factory,” which could have been a first-hand experience.