The Issue of Asbestos Exposure in the U.S.
By Gregory Cade
By virtue of the numerous convenient properties it has, such as extreme heat resistance, durability, and inability to conduct electricity, asbestos has been used since ancient times for various purposes. Asbestos use dates to 2500 BC during the new bronze age when it would be employed as a temper or strengthener for ceramics. However, in the United States, asbestos began gaining popularity in the 1920s, when over 70 different occupational groups would use it or handle it daily, such as asbestos miners, iron and steel workers, refinery workers, carpenters, power plant workers, auto mechanics, chemical plant workers, aircraft workers, textile mill workers, construction workers, shipyard workers, and many more. It was in the early 1930s when key medical studies found a strong causal relation between asbestos exposure, which occurs via inhalation or ingestion, and lung diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer, as well as throat and gastrointestinal cancers.
Nevertheless, the companies selling tremendous quantities of asbestos-containing products decided to cover up the results of these medical studies for their own financial profit, thereby keeping both employees and the general public in the dark with regard to the potentially deadly health effects of asbestos exposure. By the 1980s, there were over 2,000 active asbestos companies throughout the country, some of the most renowned being Johns Manville, W.R. Grace, Kaiser Aluminum, National Gypsum, Celotex, and Union Carbide. Fortunately, the truth concerning asbestos exposure in occupational settings eventually came to light and injured workers began filing lawsuits against these and other companies. Consequently, many of them filed for bankruptcy protection, as they could not afford to pay all the workers whose health they knowingly affected. However, as a condition of filing for bankruptcy, these liable companies had to set up asbestos trust funds so that former workers could still recover the financial compensation for which they qualified.
Compromising Internal Documents from Asbestos Companies Began Leaking
The companies that chose to use asbestos because it was widely available and cheap to purchase at that time had known about the awful health effects of exposure since the early 1920s. It was only in the 1970s that multiple internal documents supporting the fact that they were intentionally exposing workers to a dangerous, carcinogenic agent began leaking. One of the most scandalous statements concerning asbestos exposure and employees comes from Johns Manville. Upon being informed about the occurrence of asbestosis in many of their employees by Dr. Kenneth Smith in 1949, Lewis H. Brown, the president of the company, told the medical professional that “As long as the man is not disabled, it is felt that he should not be told of his condition so that he can live and work in peace, and the company can benefit from his many years of experience.”
Another important asbestos company whose compromising internal documents have recently emerged is Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc. Soon after it was founded, it became a leader in the manufacturing of asbestos textiles, brake linings, and other friction products. By working closely with Johns Manville, the company also strived to keep the connection between asbestos exposure and lung disease a secret. Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc. sponsored the study led by the Saranac Laboratory, and when a definitive link between asbestos exposure and pulmonary diseases was found, the company bribed the researchers and the publisher at Asbestos Magazine not to reveal the connection. Furthermore, in 1932, both Johns Manville and Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc. convinced Dr. Anthony Lanza, who worked for Metropolitan Life, to alter the results of his study on asbestos textile mill workers so as to downplay the serious health consequences of asbestos exposure. As a result, the discreditable part that stated, “It is possible for uncomplicated asbestosis to result fatally.” was removed from the report.
Lastly, other compromising documents supporting the early knowledge of the causal relation between asbestos exposure and lung disease comes from Bendix Corporation, another notorious asbestos company that manufactured friction materials for automobiles. Ernie Martin, the director of purchase of the company, wrote in a letter to Johns Manville concerning the increasing asbestos epidemic in the United States that “My answer to the problem is: if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it. There’s got to be some cause.”
Asbestos Is Currently Present in Over Half of the U.S. Homes
Because asbestos was extremely prevalent in construction materials such as insulation, floor tiles, acoustical panels, siding, ceiling tiles, vinyl wallpaper, duct adhesive, and roof shingles, more than half of the houses throughout the country still contain it today. The majority of buildings that contain asbestos were put up before the 1980s, when the use of asbestos was finally strongly regulated by federal organizations such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Asbestos is now employed by very few industries and the people who work with it are provided with adequate personal protective equipment. However, people who live in homes that are laden with old asbestos products may be at risk of exposure.
Asbestos building materials can be either friable or non-friable. While the former break down, chip, or crumble under pressure or as a consequence of abrasion, the latter are considerably less likely to release toxic fibers in the house. Some examples of friable asbestos products are thermal insulation, pipe lagging, and sprayed coatings, and some of the most common non-friable asbestos products are vinyl floor tiles, cement sheets, and bitumen products. It is crucial to know that if you have asbestos products in your home that are in poor condition, you should hire a certified, professional company to safely remove these health hazards from your residence. Friable asbestos products pose the highest risk of toxic exposure. If, however, the asbestos products in your home are in good condition and you do not disturb them in any way, they are relatively safe to live with it your house. We strongly advise you against attempting to remove asbestos products from your home by yourself, as this can lead to the contamination of your entire residence with carcinogenic fibers.
What Diseases Can You Develop as a Result of Asbestos Exposure?
Before naming the diseases asbestos exposure can cause, it is essential to know that it takes 10 to 50 years for a disease to develop as a result of asbestos exposure. Once asbestos fibers reach the inside of the body via inhalation or ingestion, they can easily travel through the bloodstream to numerous organs and tissues, where they will gradually cause severe inflammation and scarring. For this reason, it was only within the past three decades that more and more people began struggling with diseases that stem from asbestos exposure.
The majority of diseases that are the consequence of asbestos exposure affect the lungs, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. Nevertheless, because exposure also occurs via ingestion, people who were heavily exposed to asbestos may also come to suffer from gastrointestinal cancer or colorectal cancer. It is worthy of note that there are diseases that have a definitive causal relation with asbestos exposure and diseases that may have a connection with it. Some of the diseases asbestos exposure may contribute to the development of are emphysema, chronic bronchitis, asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Additional medical research is necessary to determine whether there is a strong link between these diseases and asbestos exposure.
Mesothelioma is the most aggressive disease asbestos exposure can result in. It is a type of lung cancer that develops on the outer lining of the lungs, medically known as the pleura. This disease is very rare, affecting only approximately 3,000 people annually throughout the country. Nonetheless, mesothelioma can also occur on the outer lining of the heart, the abdomen, and the testicles. The only cause of mesothelioma, regardless of where it develops, is asbestos exposure. While tobacco smoking was found to increase the likelihood of a person with a history of asbestos exposure of developing lung cancer, this factor was not found to influence the development of mesothelioma.
What Is Secondary Asbestos Exposure?
Because asbestos workers, regardless of the industry they would handle this toxic agent in, were not given protective equipment to shield them from inhaling and ingesting asbestos fibers, they would usually come home to their families covered in asbestos fibers. When they would greet their spouses and children, the latter would inevitably inhale some of the asbestos fibers on their work clothes. Moreover, the wives of asbestos workers would typically shake out the work clothes of their husbands before laundering them, which only worsened the extent of their secondary asbestos exposure. As a result, nowadays, there are numerous cases of family members of former asbestos workers who struggle with diseases that are usually caused by direct asbestos exposure. Since no amount of asbestos is safe, the families of former industrial asbestos workers are also at considerable risk of developing a related disease.
Victims of Asbestos Exposure Are Often Misdiagnosed
Since the symptoms of pulmonary diseases asbestos exposure is responsible for are very similar, it should come as no surprise that even experienced medical professionals may initially assign a wrong diagnosis to a victim of asbestos exposure. In the majority of cases, people are not aware that asbestos exposure is the culprit behind their symptoms, and, thereby, they fail to mention this crucial detail to their doctor, which could make the diagnostic process less challenging. Therefore, it is essential to take into consideration your history of asbestos exposure if you experience symptoms like a persistent cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Unfortunately, a very large number of people who were exposed to asbestos and are actually struggling with a disease caused by this toxic agent are misdiagnosed upon their first medical appointment, which is extremely alarming, as well as dangerous for their prognosis.
To make matters worse, the coronavirus pandemic only made it more difficult for medical professionals to accurately diagnose victims of asbestos exposure, as they often struggle with symptoms that could be attributed to infection with the novel virus. Consequently, they will receive the wrong treatment, which will obviously prove ineffective. For this reason, if you know you worked with asbestos during the last century, you should insist on this aspect when talking to your doctor so that they can order the most efficient diagnostic tests and exams for you, which include a chest X-ray, a series of pulmonary function tests, and a C.T. scan if they suspect you have a type of lung cancer. Asbestos scarring can be visible on a simple chest X-ray, which will ease the work of your doctor, as they will know what the next steps of your diagnostic process are. Even if you visit a medical professional who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases that stem from asbestos exposure, we advise you to seek a second and even a third opinion, as these diseases are very complex and, therefore, difficult to diagnose correctly. If you refuse to look for other opinions from experienced medical professionals, your risk of receiving the wrong diagnosis and treatment is very high.
Seeking Compensation for Diseases Caused by Asbestos Exposure
A sliver of hope for victims of asbestos exposure is that they can now seek financial compensation from their former employers who exposed them to asbestos on the job. There are currently approximately 60 active asbestos trust funds that provide former industrial workers injured by asbestos exposure with compensation, and, in addition to these sources of compensation, a lawyer who specializes in toxic exposure will also help you recover money from the former asbestos companies that are still in business today. A personal injury attorney who specializes in representing asbestos victims can help you recover the financial compensation that you cannot recover on your own. Lastly, you should know that hiring a lawyer who practices in this area is typically free of charge unless they obtain money on your behalf, as they usually work on a contingency fee basis.
About The Author
Gregory Cade is the principal attorney at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. Since 1990, the law firm, whose headquarters are in Birmingham, Alabama, has been providing assistance to victims of toxic exposure so that they can obtain the financial compensation they are eligible for from the liable companies. Mr. Cade has a Master of Public Health in Occupational Health, Safety, and Industrial Hygiene from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as a Juris Doctor from Miles School of Law, two degrees that have significantly contributed to his current knowledge and expertise in toxic exposure cases.