Asbestos – The Hidden Killer

By: Jack Cannon

Asbestos use in insulation became increasingly popular among manufacturers and builders in the late 19th century. Asbestos was used in everything from electric ovens and hotplate wiring to residential homes and commercial buildings. It was so well liked because it was cheap yet highly useful due to its heat insulating, flame-retarding and chemical-resisting qualities. In and around World War II, thousands of metric tons of asbestos were used in ships to wrap the pipes, line the boilers, and cover engine and turbine parts.

Asbestos is the name given to a number of naturally occurring, fibrous silicate minerals mined for their useful properties such as thermal insulations, chemical and thermal stability, and high tensile strength. Asbestos is made up of microscopic bundles of fibers that may become airborne when asbestos- containing materials are damaged or disturbed. Asbestos is known to have toxicity. Inhalation of toxic asbestos fibers can cause serious illnesses, including malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis (also called pneumoconiosis), calcifications in the lung, pleural plaques and a rare condition called pneumothorax.

Asbestos exposure becomes a health concern when high concentrations of asbestos fibers are inhaled over a long time period. People who become ill from asbestos are almost always those who are exposed on a day-to-day basis in a job where they work directly with the material. As a person's exposure to fibers increases, either by breathing more fibers or by breathing fibers for longer times, that person's risk of the disease also increases. Disease is very unlikely to result from a single, high-level exposure or from a short period of exposure to lower levels.

As noted above, exposure to asbestos has proven to result in a wide range of health conditions, including mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, hear, or abdomen. This rare form of cancer is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. Due to a long latency period, mesothelioma symptoms (shortness of breath, severe cough, chest pain) may not appear for 20 or more years. For this reason, mesothelioma is often diagnosed in later stages of development, which severely complicates treatment and chances of survival. Most respirable asbestos fibers are invisible to the unaided human eye because of their miniscule size. Asbestos fibers are small and light and easily become airborne. Fibers will eventually settle. When the fibers get into the air they may be inhaled into the lungs.

Since the mid 1980's, many uses of asbestos have been banned in several countries. In 1989 the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule which was subsequently overturned in the case of Corrosion Proof Fittings v U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1991. This ruling leaves many consumer products that can still legally contain trace amounts of asbestos. Products that legally contain asbestos are listed in the EPA's clarification statement.

The use of asbestos in new construction projects has been banned for health and safety reasons in many developed countries, including the European Union, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. A notable exception is the United States, where asbestos continues to be used in construction such as cement asbestos pipes. Prior to the ban, asbestos was widely used in the construction industry, many older buildings contain asbestos. Because of industry pressure over the number of lawsuits filed, 1999 saw the introduction of the Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act. This act was used as a tool in order to determine which of the numerous federal asbestos lawsuits were true, and if the plaintiff's were actually suffering from asbestos related illnesses. To its sponsors, the 1999 Act was "a judgment that those resources should be spent on delivering full and prompt compensation to those who are, and will become, impaired by asbestos disease, and not dissipated on payments to those who are not sick and may never become sick, on punitive damages that seek retribution for the decisions of long-dead executives for conduct that took place decades ago and on the extraordinary transaction costs."

INDIVIDUALS WHO NEED TO BE EXAMINED?

Individuals who have been exposed (or suspect they have been exposed) to asbestos dust on the job or at home via a family contact should inform their physician of their exposure history and any symptoms. Asbestos fibers can be measured in urine, feces, mucus, or material rinsed out of the lungs. A thorough physical examination, including a chest x-ray and lung functions tests, may be recommended. It is important to note that chest x-rays cannot detect asbestos fibers in the lungs, but they can help identify any lung changes resulting from asbestos exposure. Interpretation of the chest x-ray may require the help of a specialist who is experience in reading x-rays for asbestos-related diseases. Other tests also may be necessary.

As noted earlier, the symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not become apparent for many decades after exposure. If any of the following symptoms develop, a physical examination should be scheduled without delay:

  • Shortness of breath;
  • A cough or a change in cough pattern;
  • Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs;
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen;
  • Difficulty in swallowing or prolonged hoarseness; and/or
  • Significant weight loss.

Employers are required to follow regulations dealing with asbestos exposure on the job that have been issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Federal agency responsible for health and safety regulations in the workplace. Regulations related to mine safety are enforced by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Workers should use all protective equipment provided by their employers and follow recommended work practices and safety procedures. For example, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approved respirators that fit properly and should be worn by workers involved in building demolition or asbestos removal. Workers who are concerned about asbestos exposure in the workplace should discuss the situation with other employees, their union, and their employers.

Of course, if a worker is exposed to asbestos because of his or her job and sustains injury, he or she may be entitled to benefits under the Illinois Occupational Disease Act or Workers' Compensation Act. Because of the issues involved in late diagnosis, and because all claims must be brought within a certain time period, it is important to contact an attorney as soon as possible if you believe you have been injured because of asbestosis exposure.