Asbestos is a mineral that is made of easily separated fibers. The fibers are lightweight, flexible, and can be woven into cloth. It is also an effective insulator against sound, electricity, and heat, and is both chemically inert and entirely fireproof. Asbestos has been used for centuries, since before the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the United States asbestos was mined starting in the early 1900s and its use gradually increased up until the 1940s. During the 1940s, and especially during World War II and the days after, up until the early 1970s, the United States used vast amount of asbestos in over 3,000 different products. Among the largest consumers of asbestos insulation, however, were the shipyards. Asbestos insulation covered most of the wiring aboard ships, and it insulated boiler rooms and pipe fittings. As a result, men and women who worked on and around ships were exposed to large amounts of asbestos on a regular basis.
The story of a couple from Virginia is representative of the fate of many sailors, deckhands, and their families. The gentleman was a Navy veteran who sailed on a number of different vessels during the Korean War and later served as a shipyard worker. He remembered clouds of asbestos filling his ship every time they fired the big guns. He remembered helping to remove and replace asbestos insulation when they were in port, and the asbestos dust that filled the air during those periods. In 1985 the gentleman was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He was lucky. They caught the cancer early and were able to surgically remove the tumor along with part of his lung, and he survived.
But the years of asbestos exposure weren’t limited to this gentleman. Whenever he was in port in Virginia, he would go home to be with his wife. The asbestos clouds that he breathed all day also settled on his clothing. When his wife did the laundry, the asbestos came off his clothes and she inhaled it. Fifteen years after the gentleman survived his bout with mesothelioma, his wife was diagnosed with mesothelioma. As is far more common with such a diagnosis, she died just one month later.
The dangers of asbestos have been known almost as long as it has been used. The Greeks noted that slaves who worked with asbestos the most, died young and had breathing problems. Studies done in the United States and England during the early 1900s confirmed that asbestos was dangerous and caused respiratory problems. As early as the 1930s medical journals contained articles about the link between asbestos and cancer. Even with all this information about the dangers of asbestos, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the United States government started taking steps to reduce the amount of asbestos people were exposed to. Even today, asbestos is not banned in the United States and people are still being occupationally exposed, although not in the numbers of early years
Malignant mesothelioma is the most dangerous of the diseases caused by asbestos. It’s most common form, pleural mesothelioma, is a cancer of the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the chest cavity. It has a latency period of up to 40 yearsor more before asbestos exposure leads to the development of the disease. The first sign of mesothelioma is difficulty in catching one’s breath after exercise. A lot of people don’t recognize this as a medical condition and don’t seek medical care until the symptoms include an inability to breathe even while at rest and increasingly severe chest pain. If mesothelioma is caught in its early stages, surgical removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue may prevent the condition from recurring. If the asbestos cancer has already metastasized by the time of discovery, however, surgery is less effective. At that point doctors rely on a combination of chemotherapy and radiation treatments to try to slow the growth of the cancer. Although treatments are getting better, there is still no cure for mesothelioma.