Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals formerly used commercially for their desirable physical properties. The inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause serious illnesses, including lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis (a type of pneumoconiosis). The trade and use of asbestos have been restricted or banned in many jurisdictions, although the United States currently still imports asbestos minerals for use in commercial products.
Asbestos Use – History
Historians have traced the use of asbestos back to ancient times when the naturally-occurring minerals were worked into candle wicks, cloth, pottery, and cooking utensils. Many different cultures saw the benefits of asbestos fibers being that they were strong, flexible, and resistant to heat and fire. It is believed that the word “asbestos” derives from the Greek, and literally means “inextinguishable” or “indestructible.”
Even in ancient Rome, where asbestos fibers were woven into tablecloths and napkins, Pliny the Elder documented respiratory illness in those working with the substance in mines or production areas.
Different asbestos minerals were used throughout the middle ages in countries like France, Germany, and Italy, but were not commercially mined until the late 1800s. In 1879, the first asbestos mine was open at Thetford, within the Canadian province of Quebec. After 300 tons of asbestos had been commercially produced in Canada, Russia and other countries quickly began mining the substance as well.
The Industrial Revolution in the United States saw many needs for asbestos. Given the minerals’ resistance to heat and flame, asbestos fibers added to insulation and other products used in steam locomotives, automobiles, commercial and residential buildings, and more. The flexible characteristics of asbestos fibers added to their binding and strengthening capabilities. Eventually, the substance would be used in over 3,000 commercial products in America.
Despite the benefits that many individuals saw in asbestos, researchers began documenting illnesses and deaths among those living in asbestos mining towns and factories in the 1900s.
Asbestosis was first diagnosed in a worker in 1924 when Nellie Kershaw died at thirty-three years old after handling the substance for twenty years. Her death would lead to the publication of the first Asbestos Industry Regulations in 1931. While many employers and asbestos manufacturers claimed that asbestos was not a dangerous substance, more workers fell ill to fatal asbestos-related diseases, like mesothelioma and lung cancer.
In 1989, the U.S. EPA banned asbestos, but it was over-turned when industry groups appealed. Today, asbestos is still not banned in America, and many countries continue to mine, import and export it for commercial use. The World Health Organization estimates that 125,000,000 people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace today; meaning the devastating diseases that come with exposure will continue to affect the world for some time to come.
Asbestos has been used in home appliances (coffee pots, toasters, irons, popcorn poppers, and crock pots), as well as in portable heaters, dishwashers, wood-burning stoves, and gas-fired decorative logs, for decades. In fact, until 1980, asbestos was contained in most handheld hair dryers.
Many asbestos-containing products are still in use. Some older appliances, including toasters and irons, have even been collected as antiques, but their frayed electrical cords, asbestos-covered electrical and heating elements, and asbestos-containing insulation pose dangers to consumers and to the home “do-it-yourself” repairman.
Asbestos in the Home
Homes built in the United States before 1980 are likely to have been constructed with different kinds of asbestos materials. Roofing, insulation, flooring, and fireplaces are just some of the spots that asbestos might be present in these older residential structures. If the products are intact or sealed, there is little reason to worry. It is when asbestos is disturbed that microscopic fibers can be inhaled, possibly causing fatal diseases to evolve over time.
This can make remodeling a tough situation for the do-it-yourself home renovator. Testing for asbestos is one way to ensure you protect you and your family from asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer. There are many home tests that can be administered, but the American Lung Association recommends hiring a certified asbestos abatement professional to take samples and minimize unnecessary exposure.
Most of those who were exposed to asbestos were exposed in an industrial environment. People who worked in the following industries or the following occupations may have been exposed to asbestos at some point in their career:
Auto mechanics, where asbestos is used in brake linings, gaskets, and clutches
Construction workers, where asbestos was incorporated into fireproofing and many building materials, including roof shingles, pipes, siding, ceiling, and floor tiles, and joint compound
Drywall installers, where the main exposure to asbestos was in the joint compounds that were used to cover and smooth the taping seams between sheets
Electricians, where asbestos was commonly used as an insulator in wiring and in high-voltage switchgear and motors; and electricians typically worked around the joint compound and fireproofing
Firefighters, who are exposed to an array of construction materials and compounds while fighting fires in older buildings, as well as wearing asbestos suits to prevent injury
Insulators who install or remove asbestos pipe covering, asbestos block insulation or asbestos cement
Longshoremen and shipbuilders, who were exposed to massive levels of asbestos while unloading asbestos fiber and other asbestos-containing cargo. Shipyard workers were also exposed to asbestos while constructing and repairing vessels
Miners, where asbestos was a contaminant
Plumbers and pipefitters, including steamfitters, who worked with asbestos gaskets and packing and the insulation used on the pipes they were repairing
Railroad workers, where asbestos was used in insulation, brake linings, and in other areas
Sheet metal workers, where asbestos was common in construction materials as well as protective gear
Brickmasons and boilermakers, who were exposed to gaskets, rope, insulation and refractory mortars and cement used to insulate boilers and furnaces and associated piping
Teachers who may be exposed to asbestos dust in the classroom from worn, damaged, or disturbed building materials or from teaching art classes that utilize asbestos materials
Many of the workers who are at risk for asbestos exposure are union members. If you have an on-the-job issue involving asbestos exposure, we recommend that you contact your union representative for assistance.
Asbestos in the Military
Some of those most affected by asbestos exposure are the United States, military veterans. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 3 mesothelioma victims is a veteran. Whether they served in the Army, Navy, or Marines, most soldiers faced asbestos exposure along with the dangers of combat. This is because asbestos materials were used so heavily within every branch of the military:
Army – Most Army vehicles were equipped with asbestos insulation to protect soldiers from fires, while Army bases were also built with affordable asbestos construction materials.
Air Force – Asbestos could be found in the brakes, cockpit heating systems, heat shields, torque valves, gaskets, electrical wiring, and insulation within Air Force aircraft.
Navy – Nearly all Navy ships constructed after 1920 contained asbestos throughout the ship, no matter what their size and function. Some soldiers were exposed to asbestos fibers within their sleeping quarters. Because of the confined spaces and amount of asbestos used onboard, these soldiers and shipyard workers are some of those most affected by asbestos-related diseases, today.
Marines – Like other branches of the U.S. Military, Marines faced the same dangers of asbestos exposure in vehicles, on ships, and inside military bases.
Since asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma can take 10 to 50 years to develop after exposure has taken place, it is retired United States veterans who are at risk for diagnosis today.
While a veteran cannot take legal action against the military for their exposure, many retired veterans have obtained compensation from the companies who manufactured the asbestos products used within different branches.
There have been documented health issues associated with asbestos exposure since the beginning of its use. Even in Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder witnessed a decline in health among those who wove fibrous asbestos minerals into different textiles. Workers and residents of asbestos mining towns have suffered serious side effects after working with and living so close to the substance.
Despite the claims of many asbestos companies, there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Even minimal levels of exposure to the substance can cause fatal, asbestos-related diseases. It is estimated that 10,000 Americans will die this year due to an asbestos-related disease, such as these:
Asbestosis: The scarring and inflammation of lung tissue caused by exposure to asbestos is known as asbestosis. Inhaled asbestos fibers reach the body’s air sacs, or alveoli, where oxygen is transferred into the blood. The lung’s immune system will react to the presence of asbestos by attempting to remove the inhaled fibers. Scavenger white blood cells, known as macrophages, will attempt to break down the fibers but are ruptured and killed in the process. As a result, fibroblasts are attracted to the site, where the formation of scar tissue, or asbestosis, begins.
Asbestosis is a disease that can take years to develop. Symptoms are often mistaken for other respiratory illnesses. It is important for individuals to alert their doctor to any past exposure, as an illness like asbestosis can lead to other asbestos-related diseases, like mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a rare and incurable form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. It is estimated to affect nearly 3,000 Americans each year, while many thousands of diagnoses are reported abroad as asbestos use continues around the world. If asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they can penetrate and damage the cells within the mesothelium, the pleural cavity that contains the lungs. If damage occurs, irregular cell division can progress into malignant tumors, leading to death.
It can take anywhere from 10 to 60 years for the symptoms of mesothelioma to appear, making it necessary for victims of past exposure to alert their doctor to the possibility of a mesothelioma diagnosis. The risk of developing mesothelioma from asbestos exposure is dose-dependent: more exposure to asbestos can mean a greater risk of developing the disease.
Asbestos Lung Cancer: Exposure to asbestos is also considered a major cause of lung cancer. There have been many instances of lung cancer developing in asbestos exposure victims in the absence of other cancer-causing agents. In the same way that mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure, lung cancer can develop after asbestos fibers get caught within the lungs of a victim. The entrapment of these microscopic fibers within the lungs can lead to irregular cell development, ultimately causing lung cancer within the individual.
Those who smoke cigarettes in addition to having prolonged exposure to asbestos greatly increase their risk of developing asbestos lung cancer. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the combination of cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure increases an individual’s risk for lung cancer by 50 to 84 times.
There are other illnesses associated with asbestos exposure being diagnosed every day. If you have been exposed to asbestos at any point in your lifetime, you are urged to alert your doctor to the possibility of an asbestos-related disease developing over time.
The first documented diagnosis of asbestosis was in 1924 after factory worker Nellie Kershaw died at the age of thirty-three. Ms. Kershaw handled asbestos materials for over twenty years – long enough for the deadly fibers to embed themselves in her lungs and cause a world of trouble. Two years before her death, it was determined that Nellie had “asbestos poisoning,” but employers and insurance companies refused to assist Nellie in her time of need.
Nelly and her family suffered through her illness and death without compensation for their pain and suffering, medical costs, and more. Today, many of the victims of asbestos exposure fight in the courtroom and win, thanks to asbestos and mesothelioma attorneys experienced in fighting for victims’ rights.
For many asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma victims, asbestos exposure has taken place over the years or decades in the work-place. While asbestos manufacturers and companies knew of the dangers of their products around the time of Nellie Kershaw’s death, they knowingly let workers handle asbestos during the entire 20th century without proper training or protective equipment.
If you have been exposed to asbestos and consequently diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, do not hesitate to file an asbestos claim with an experienced attorney today.