People who work in industries using asbestos, including those people who work in shipyards, and those who work as pipe fitters have probably been exposed to sufficient asbestos fibers to damage their health, and possibly even the health of their families, by inhaling the fibers, which can lead to a number of asbestos related diseases (such as asbestosis or pleural plaques) and even a number of different forms of asbestos cancer (Such as lung cancer or mesothelioma). Workers in the various industries inhale asbestos fibers at work, and unknowingly bring home fibers on their clothes. When family members touch the clothing the fibers can become airborne leading to more inhalation.
Asbestos has been used for centuries because of its resistance to heat and fire. Although even ancient civilizations were aware that asbestos damaged a person’s lungs, it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that regulations were imposed on asbestos refining and use. Additionally, the regulations were not enforced evenly; causing some workers and their families to suffer injury long after such exposure should have been prevented. Even today, asbestos is not banned in the United States, and it continues to be used almost without regulation in some countries outside the United States.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled into the body the fibers travel down the trachea and into the lungs. Once in the lungs the fibers move along smaller pathways until they reach the alveoli. Because of the size and shape of asbestos fibers the body has a difficult time in eliminating them. Once in alveoli the body tries to break the fibers down with a liquid produced by specialized cells in the lungs. As part of the process, some of that liquid gets onto the lung tissue. It is very irritating to the tissue, and after extended periods of exposure, scar tissue builds up. This tissue makes it difficult for the lungs to effectively provide oxygen to the body. This condition is caused asbestosis.
Asbestosis is associated with an even more serious asbestos related condition, malignant mesothelioma. This asbestos cancer, which, in its most common form (Pleural mesothelioma) is a cancer of the tissue surrounding the lungs, is not curable, and is almost always fatal. Even with new forms of treatment becoming available every year, the survival rate over one year is still low.
The United States Chamber of Commerce indicated in 2004 that more than 50 U.S. companies had declared bankruptcy as a result of asbestos litigation. By February of 2006, this number was up to more than 70 companies. These bankruptcy claims leave injured workers with nowhere to go to get compensation for the loss of their health, and surviving family members have no compensation for the loss of their loved ones’ lives.
One of the many companies that have been sued over asbestos exposure is National Steel. National Steel and Shipbuilding Corporation’s headquarters are in San Diego, California. In 2004 San Diego County had the eighth highest number of asbestos related deaths in the United States according to a study released by the Environmental Working Group. Information came out during the 1980’s, that workers at National Steel complained that they were being regularly exposed to hazardous amounts of asbestos without proper protection. The federal government safety inspectors refused to investigate these claims.
The combination of the number of lawsuits, and the number of bankruptcies has caused federal lawmakers to try to come up with a solution. There have been at least two bills aimed at eliminating asbestos litigation in favor of a several billion-dollar trust fund from which to compensate damaged parties. To date, no such legislation has passed. There are major differences of opinion as to whether such legislation would benefit or harm damaged parties. While a fund would prevent the need for litigation, the damage would still have to be proven to a board. There is also a concern over what happens when the money in the fund runs out.