Those who were part of the merchant marine between 1940 and 1980 are among the many industrial and maritime workers at risk for asbestos-related disease. The reason is rooted in maritime history going back eight decades.
Despite the fact that the connection between asbestos and respiratory disease was becoming very apparent (Great Britain had already tightly regulated the use of it in 1931), the asbestos corporations – W.R. Grace & Company, Johns-Manville, Raysbestos-Manhattan and others – saw an opportunity to make fabulous profits. Exploiting the emotions of the victims’ families, the fears of the maritime industry and the relative ignorance of members of Congress, lobbyists for the asbestos industry convinced the federal government to pass regulations requiring the extensive use of asbestos throughout the construction of new ships.
Mesothelioma and Asbestosis
After twenty years of breathing asbestos fibers an the enclosed space, it is small wonder that so many seamen contract respiratory diseases; in one group of mariners studied at the Mount Sinai Hospital School of Medicine, the rate was 86%.
Asbestosis is the more common of the two major diseases. This is caused by the action of the body’s own immune system. Antibodies called microphages actually identify asbestos fibers as a pathogenic invader such as a virus or bacteria and attack accordingly; they tear themselves apart upon the inorganic silicate matter, and digestive enzymes come in contact with healthy lung tissue, causing burning and scarring. As this scar tissue builds up over time, it reduces the lungs’ oxygen capacity, ultimately suffocating the victim.
Doctors do not fully understand the mechanics of malignant mesothelioma. It is apparent that asbestos fibers, working their way out of the lungs and onto the pleural lining, interact with healthy cells at the level of the DNA. It is this interaction that appears to cause the healthy cells to become malignant.
Once the asbestos cancer develops, in it’s most common form (Pleural mesothelioma) it spreads in a sheet-like fashion over the lungs, and often spreads to the inner chest and abdominal walls. The lungs are increasingly unable to expand, and eventually the victim dies from asphyxiation.