Unless you have been without any media access for the past twenty years, you are most likely aware of the issues surrounding asbestos exposure and the asbestos cancer known as mesothelioma (mez-oh-thee-lee-OH-muh). You may have been exposed yourself, and either have the disease or are concerned about it.
You have also probably heard about the huge amount of litigation these issues have spawned, as well as the astronomical amounts of money awarded by the courts in such legal actions – sometimes running into the eight- and nine-figure range.
Job Sites And Asbestos Exposure
While it is true that there continues to be a tremendous amount of litigation over asbestos issues, such large awards to individuals are rare, and are usually reduced on appeal. The fact is that asbestos litigation is tremendously complex, encompassing a very wide range of legal, medical, political, social and historical issues. For this reason, there are many law firms and attorneys today that specialize in asbestos litigation to the exclusion of other areas of the law.
Asbestos – What Is It?
The ancient Egyptians and Romans knew of asbestos and its uses; Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, philosopher and naval commander who lived during the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius, described it as a “magic mineral.” Like rock, asbestos does not burn, yet it is soft and pliable enough to be woven into clothing and wicks for oil lamps.
This is because asbestos literally is made of stone. More accurately, it is a group of six different silicate minerals, the most common of which is called chrysotile. Also known as serpentine, chrysotile fibers are curly and flexible. This was the most widely-used form of asbestos during the Industrial Age.
Asbestos Information The other five are called crocidilite, amosite, anthrophylite, tremolite, and actinolyte. All six of these contain exceptionally dangerous, long, needle-like fibers called amphiboles. Crocidolite is also called “blue asbestos;” these fibers are substantially stronger than those made from chrysolite. Amosite is better known as “brown asbestos” because of its iron content, and is highly resistant to corrosive acids, making it very useful in chemical industries.
In addition to the six types of asbestos described above, there are a number of other substances that are as of yet unregulated. Two of these are known as richterite and winchite. Richterite is a relatively rare mineral used for lapidary purposes. Winchite is an asbestiform amphibole found in vermiculite deposits in Libby, Montana where much of the country’s asbestos was mined. There is also strong evidence that talc – used in baby powder and cosmetics – is also toxic; the rate of malignant mesothelioma among talc miners in Jefferson County, NY is among the highest in the nation.
Both crocidolite and amosite have largely been banned. Chrysolite and tremolite were primarily mined and used in the U.S. and Canada; whitish-grey in color, they are still found in hundreds of products and perhaps as many as 750,000 public buildings across the country. Amazingly, asbestos is still legal in the U.S.; an 1989 ban by the Environmental Protection Agency was overturned by the U.S. Fifth District of Appeals in 1991.
Health Effects of Asbestos Exposure
Were you to look at asbestos fibers under a microscope, you would see long, sharp, spear-like objects or structures similar to steel springs. These cannot be seen with the unaided eye; as dust, they may be inhaled or ingested by the millions. When these microscopic objects enter the alveolar sacs of the lungs, they create small lacerations, resulting in the formation of scar tissue. Eventually, they penetrate the pleural lining of the lungs, causing damage on a cellular level. Because of their microscopic size, these asbestos fibers can ultimately reach every part of the body, including the brain; pathologists have even discovered that such fibers can be passed from mother to fetus.
The body’s defense mechanisms are actually able to identify these asbestos fibers as “foreign invaders” like a bacterium or a virus. Unlike bacteria or virus however, asbestos fibers are completely inorganic; anti-bodies have no effect on them. Instead, these anti-bodies literally impale themselves on the fibers. This causes their caustic digestive molecules to come into contact with lung tissues, leading to yet more irritation and scarring.
Mesothelioma Ultimately, the victim develops asbestosis or mesothelioma. The former is caused by the build-up of scar tissue on the lungs, which reduces lung capacity to a point at which the patient literally suffocates.
Mesothelioma is a particularly aggressive and malignant form of cancer; symptoms can take as long as forty years to manifest. Once this happens however, in most cases the patient dies within two years.
The U.S. government’s involvement in the asbestos industry dates back to 1934. In September of that year, a passenger ship called the S.S. Morro Castle caught fire off the coast of New Jersey, killing one-fifth of those aboard. During the ensuing Senate hearings, lobbyists for the marine industry applied pressure for the use of the fire-resistant material in shipbuilding – while corporations involved in the asbestos industry itself, acutely aware that huge profits were to be made, ensured that information on the health effects of asbestos – which had been documented for several years in Great Britain – were not widely available to Congress, nor discussed.
Navy Veterans and Mesothelioma Eventually, the U.S. government became aware of these dangers, but failed to take action until 1943, when “standards” were issued; these were recommendations that precautions be taken by shipyard workers. However, these were not strictly enforced until the 1970s, when the corporate cover-up regarding asbestos could no longer be concealed.
Virtually all people on the planet have suffered asbestos exposure to some degree. However, the people at risk for developing are those who have worked in specific industries for an extended time, particularly in closed environments in facilities constructed prior to the 1980s. Because asbestos was used primarily as an insulation – against fire, heat, electricity and/or corrosive chemicals – chances are that anyone who worked in an industrial setting where one or more of these elements were present has been exposed to asbestos fibers.
Because of the latency of mesothelioma (that is, the period of time between exposure to asbestos and the appearance of symptoms), determining liability is difficult in many cases; it is one of the reasons that asbestos litigation is highly complex and time-consuming. Because of this, great amounts of meticulous research and documentation is required in order to build a case. Because asbestos litigation has been ongoing since the late 1960s however, there is a large amount of case law and precedent upon which to draw. In addition, many law firms maintain extensive databases of information regarding asbestos manufacturers, their successors and customers, various locations in which asbestos products were used, and more.