Despite increasing awareness on the dangers of asbestos exposure, many remain uninformed of the risks surrounding this carcinogen. Furthermore, the relative rarity of these diseases contributes to the general sense of elusiveness surrounding most asbestos-related illnesses. Mesothelioma, in particular, remains a mysterious disease. Although asbestos use has been largely regulated in the United States, it remains in countless public and private structures, meaning the risks of exposure are still present.
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Asbestos is a mineral that was popular in most forms of construction and numerous industries for its natural insulating, strengthening and fire-resistant abilities, as well as its poor conduction of electricity. There are six varieties, though chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite are the most frequently used. The earliest use of asbestos dates back over 4,500 years and it remains in use today throughout many nations, valued greatly for its inexpensive production and effectiveness.
Despite its usefulness, asbestos presents several major health hazards. These are due to the material’s tendency to fragment into tiny fibers which can suspend in the air to be inhaled or ingested. This is unlike most other minerals, which turn into dust particles when crushed. These tiny fibers are a threat because the body cannot easily rid itself of them. They are especially dangerous when located around the lungs, where they can lead to a number of respiratory complications.
Asbestos can be found in homes, offices, schools or industrial facilities built before regulations of the late 1970s began. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that asbestos containing materials sit in most of the nation’s approximately 107,000 primary and secondary schools. Furthermore, the agency estimates that 733,000 commercial and public buildings also contain these materials. However, asbestos was also a popular component of numerous consumer products. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency cites one study estimating that as many as 3,000 different types of commercial products used some quantity of asbestos, which varied from as little as one percent to as much as 100.
No, asbestos is not illegal in the United States. Although the Asbestos Ban & Phaseout Rule, which would have eventually eliminated approximately 94 percent of the asbestos used in the U.S., was passed in 1989, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, overturned the rule in 1991. The Environmental Protection Agency explains that today, “the manufacture, importation, processing and distribution of most asbestos-containing products is still legal.”
Those most at risk for asbestos exposure are individuals that worked in professions that involved use or contact with the material. These include virtually all forms of construction, the military and industrial professions. In addition, family members of these employees were at risk due to the chance of secondhand exposure.
If you suspect asbestos materials sit in your home, it is important not to disturb them in any way or attempt independent removal. Asbestos fibers are most dangerous when damaged, which allows them to enter the air. Only licensed professionals have the experience and equipment needed to safely take on an asbestos abatement project.
Doctors recommend anyone who suspects they underwent asbestos exposure to receive a medical checkup to look for signs of disease, even if no symptoms have yet been exhibited. This early diagnosis will allow earlier treatment, providing a greater success rate. In addition, these patients may also be able to make lifestyle changes that will decrease the likelihood their past exposure will lead to disease.
Mesothelioma is a unique form of cancer which most often develops in the thin tissue membrane lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen and heart. This cancer originates due to the body’s inability to expel the tiny asbestos fibers, which may be needlelike or curled. Currently, 2,000 to 3,000 individuals in the United States are diagnosed annually with this disease.
Mesothelioma is characterized by a long latency period of 20 to 50 years, poor treatment success and a short average life expectancy of just eight to 18 months. Men develop this disease more frequently, due to occupational exposure, and the disease is generally diagnosed in its later stages because of the absence of early symptoms or their similarity to other conditions.
In addition to mesothelioma, asbestos exposure can lead to lung cancer and asbestosis, which is a non-cancerous, chronic respiratory disease. When inhaled, these asbestos fibers aggravate lung tissue and lead to scarring. The symptoms of this disease include a dry crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling and shortness of breath. It may also lead to cardiac failure when in its later stages. Like mesothelioma, no treatment for this condition currently exists.
Beginning in the early 1980s, victims of asbestos-related diseases began taking legal action against the companies that allowed such exposure. Due to a flood of new claims brought on when large numbers of individuals began developing these diseases, many of these companies created trusts to compensate victims. In many cases, these companies knowingly allowed past employee exposure. However, lawsuits against these deceitful companies today help families win justice for the loss of their loved ones, in addition to paying medical bills, related treatment expenses, lost wages, funeral expenses, and family member support. Patients and their families are encouraged to contact a qualified legal representative if they have received an asbestos-related disease diagnosis.