What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of minerals that occur naturally in the environment as bundles of fibers and can be separated into thin, durable threads. Asbestos fibers do not conduct electricity and are resistant to fire, chemicals, and heat. For these reasons, asbestos has been widely used in many industries and a variety of building construction materials for insulation and as a fire-retardant. If asbestos fibers are breathed in, they can cause asbestosis (scarring of the lung tissue), mesothelioma and lung cancer.
The Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies have banned several Asbestos products and manufacturers have also voluntarily limited uses of Asbestos. Still, Asbestos is commonly found today in older homes and in a number of materials. The sad fact is many suspected a link between Asbestos exposure and lung disease long before preventative measures were put in place. Many businesses made little or no effort to protect workers from breathing in Asbestos particles, putting profits ahead of health and safety. Yet many of these same companies continue to deny medical claims from former employees who suffer from Asbestos-related illnesses.
There are two subgroups of asbestos: chrysotile, which has curly fibers and is in the serpentine family of minerals; and amphibole asbestos, which has straight, needle-like fibers and includes anthophyllite, actinolite, tremolite, amosite and crocidolite asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos has been used predominantly in commercial applications around the world.
Our attorneys will not allow Asbestos victims to suffer with financial uncertainty. Our nationally experienced Asbestos attorneys understand the precedent for Asbestos-related cases, and can recommend a course of legal action.
How is Asbestos used?
Beginning in the late 1800s, asbestos was mined and used commercially in North America. Asbestos use increased during WWII and has since been used in many industries. For instance, the shipbuilding industry used it to insulate hot water pipes, steam pipes and boilers. Construction companies used asbestos for roofing, fire proofing, sound absorption and insulation. The automotive industry used it in clutch pads and vehicle brake shoes. Asbestos has also been found in:
- Ceiling tiles
- Floor tiles
- Vermiculite-containing consumer garden products
- Talc-containing crayons
During the 1970s, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned asbestos in gas fireplaces and wallboard patching because asbestos fibers could be released into the environment. Electric hairdryer manufacturers also voluntarily stopped using asbestos in their products. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required schools to inspect for damaged asbestos and eliminate asbestos exposure by removing or encasing it.
In 2000, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission found that children's exposure to asbestos in crayons was very low. Regardless, crayon manufacturers eliminated talc from their products. The EPA also responded to reports about health effects linked to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite. After several tests, the EPA discovered the vermiculite posed only a small health concern. The agency advised consumers to:
- Use vermiculite outside or in a well-ventilated area
- Keep vermiculite damp during use
- Use premixed potting soil to limit dust
- Avoiding bringing dust into the home
The above regulations, combined with public concern about asbestos health risks, have resulted in a large decrease of asbestos use in the United States.
What are the hazards of Asbestos exposure?
People can come into contact with asbestos at in their homes, communities or at work. When asbestos-containing products are disturbed, tiny fibers are sent into the air. If these fibers are inhaled, they can become lodged in the lungs. The body cannot get rid of these fibers, which can eventually cause inflammation, scarring, breathing difficulties and health problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Health and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have all concluded that asbestos is a human carcinogen. Research shows that asbestos exposure can increase a person's risk of developing meosthelioma and lung cancer. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that affects the mesothelium, which is a lining that covers the chest and abdominal cavities. Some research also indicates a link between asbestos exposure and other types of cancer, but this information is inconclusive. Asbestos can also increase a person's chance of developing:
- Asbestosis (scarring of the lungs)
- Pleural plaques
- Pleural effusions (fluid buildup between lungs and chest cavity)
- Pleural thickening
- Certain research indicates that individuals with asbestos-induced pleural disease have a greater risk of developing lung cancer.
Who is at risk for an Asbestos-disease?
Everyone experiences some asbestos exposure in their lifetime because minimal levels of asbestos can be found throughout the environment. These people usually do not see any health effects as a result of this low level exposure. However, those who come into contact with asbestos on a daily basis may develop asbestos-related diseases. People with a high risk of developing these health problems were exposed to asbestos at work or through significant environmental contact.
Millions of workers since the 1940s have been exposed to asbestos. Those at risk for asbestos-related illnesses worked in the following industries:
- Mining and milling
- Asbestos textile manufacturing
- Construction and building
- Drywall or asbestos removal
Since the government has now established regulations concerning asbestos, workers today who do not have previous exposure face a much more minimal risk than past employees.
Those who helped in the recovery, rescue and cleanup at the World Trade Center after Sept. 11 may also be at risk for mesothelioma, asbestosis or other related diseases. Asbestos was used in the North Tower and when the building collapsed, asbestos fibers were sent into the air. Police officers, firefighters, construction workers, volunteers and paramedics on the scene have the highest risk. Residents and students in the area may also be at risk for developing asbestos-related health problems.
According to one study, approximately 70% of rescue workers at the World Trade Center experienced respiratory symptoms. Approximately 28% had abnormal lung function results and 61% developed new respiratory symptoms. Nevertheless, these workers may have developed these conditions due to debris other than asbestos.
Though research shows heavier and longer asbestos exposure increases one's risk of health problems, asbestos-related diseases have developed in those with only brief exposure. Usually, asbestos-induced illnesses do not manifest until 10 to 40 years after the exposure.
Family members of workers who were exposed to asbestos also have a risk of developing these diseases. Many believe asbestos workers brought fibers home on their skin, hair and clothing. Federal law now requires some workers to shower or change clothing before returning home.
What factors affect the risk of Asbestos exposure?
There are many factors that determine who is at risk for developing mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases. Some factors include shape, size and chemical makeup of asbestos fibers; source of exposure; dose of asbestos; duration of exposure; and individual risk factors such as smoking.
Different forms of asbestos may pose different health risks, though all types are dangerous. For instance, amphibole asbestos may pose a greater risk of developing mesothelioma than chrysotile asbestos. All commercial forms of asbestos have been linked to lung cancer.
How does smoking affect Asbestos risk?
Research shows that smokers who are exposed to asbestos have a greater risk for developing lung cancer. However, smoking and asbestos exposure combined do not seem increase the risk of developing mesothelioma.
Studies show that workers exposed to asbestos reduce their chance of getting lung cancer if they quit smoking. Those who may have been exposed at work should not smoke.
How are Asbestos diseases detected?
If you believe you have been exposed to asbestos at work, in your community or at home, you should contact a doctor immediately. Regardless of whether you are experiencing symptoms, you should see a doctor and inform him or her of your exposure history. Symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-induced illnesses may not appear for decades. When, and if, symptoms do develop, they usually include:
- Breathlessness or shortness of breath
- A cough that won't go away
- Coughing up blood
- Wheezing or hoarseness
- Fatigue or anemia
- Trouble swallowing
- Pain or tightening in the chest
- Swelling of the neck or face
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
Your doctor may conduct a physical exam, lung function tests or a chest x-ray. Medical professionals commonly use x-rays to detect asbestos-induced illnesses. While x-rays cannot find asbestos fibers, they can show signs of lung disease. A CT scan may be also be used as this has been more successful at finding lung abnormalities.
If your physician believes you may be suffering from a lung abnormality, he or she may conduct a lung biopsy. This technique can find asbestos fibers in the lung tissue. A bronchoscopy may also be performed as a less invasive option to the lung biopsy. Unfortunately, these tests cannot establish how much exposure the patient had or whether they will develop related illnesses.
Tests of a patient's mucus, feces and urine may be conducted; however, these cannot determine the amount of asbestos present in the person's lungs.
Asbestos and Asbestosis
While mesothelioma is the most well known illness caused by exposure to asbestos, it is not the only one. Another significant illness caused by asbestos is asbestosis. The first diagnosis of asbestosis was made in England, in 1924 following the death of a 36 year old asbestos worker.
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that can be found in several different forms. Asbestos is known for its strength and resistance to heat. While its like to serious respiratory illnesses is now well known, asbestos is not banned in the United States. However, the use of asbestos has been extensively regulated by both state and federal laws since the mid 1970s, due to its carcinogenic properties and the other health problems it causes. The risk of exposure to asbestos is increased, however, because laws regulating the use of asbestos outside of the U.S. are often lax, so goods imported from other counties are still imported into the country.
Another common cause of exposure to asbestos is during the remediation or remodeling of older buildings, where asbestos was often used for insulation or as a fire retardant. The demolition of older buildings also poses a risk or releasing asbestos fibers into the air. Asbestos may also be found in rock and gravel used in road construction, because it is a natural mineral.
Asbestos, when viewed under a microscope, can be seen to be composed of strands of long, fine fibers. When asbestos is disturbed, portions of the fibers break off. This asbestos dust is so small that it can only be seen under a microscope. When these fibers are airborne, they can be breathed in and become lodged in the lungs. While some may be caught by the body's defense system, others are not, and work their way into the trachea and lungs, and then into the small air sacks in the lungs called the alveoli. This is where oxygen replaces carbon dioxide in the blood stream. Because the asbestos fibers are a foreign substance, the body produces cells which try to remove them. Often, due to the length of the asbestos fibers, they cannot be engulfed by the cells, causing fluid to build up in the alveoli, which in turn causes inflammation and, over time, scar tissue builds up. As the scar tissue becomes more extensive, it becomes asbestosis.
Asbestosis usually does not show up for decades after initial exposure. In its initial stages there are no visible symptoms. However, over a period of time, the affected alveoli lose their ability to exchange the carbon dioxide and oxygen. The lungs become increasingly stiff due to the scar tissue, resulting in difficulty breathing.
There is no known cure for asbestosis. The symptoms can be treated with both medication and oxygen. However, asbestosis often leads to more serious medical conditions, including pulmonary hypertension, heart failure and malignant mesothelioma.
How does Asbestos lead to Mesothelioma?
Asbestos, while it appears solid, is actually composed of thousands of tiny fibers. These asbestos fibers are easily inhaled by a person working with or around them. When they are inhaled and work their way into the lungs, the body tries to break down and remove them, causing inflammation as the body tries to rid itself of these foreign particles.
Because they are so small, asbestos particles and dust reaches the smallest and most remote parts of the lungs. Once there, they cannot be coughed out unless they cling to the mucus in the air passages. Asbestos fibers can also settle in the tissue around the chest cavity (pleura) or the abdominal cavity (peritoneum). When this happens, they cause inflammation and lead to pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma, respectively.
Asbestos fibers in the lungs can damage the organs by forming scar tissue. Because of this, the risk of lung cancer is approximately seven times greater for people who have had asbestos exposure compared to people who have not had such exposure. For people with severe exposure to asbestos, three of the primary causes of death are 1) This scarring of the lungs (also known as asbestosis), 2) lung cancer and 3) mesothelioma.
Do I need an Asbestos lawyer?
When you receive a diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease, you may begin to question your medical treatment, future plans and legal choices. Luckily, patients have the option of hiring an experienced asbestos lawyer for their lawsuit. Before you choose your attorney, continue reading for more information on how an asbestos lawyer can help.
While it may be tempting to pursue your asbestos lawsuit without the help of an asbestos attorney, it is not recommended. Asbestos litigation is complex and may only add to your stress if you go it alone. Asbestos manufacturers and insurance companies have experience defending against asbestos claims. An experienced asbestos attorney can help you learn your legal rights and bring support and knowledge to your claim. He or she can also tell you where to file your claim and which parties to sue. Asbestos lawyers are educated on statutes of limitations, asbestos litigation, insurance laws and insurance company tactics. He or she will also have connections to the medical community which can help you find support for your asbestos-induced diagnosis.
How Can Asbestos Affect My Health?
Research shows that inhaling substantial amounts of asbestos fibers can lead to a greater chance of developing asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and gastrointestinal cancers. The more fibers that are breathed in, the greater the risk. Those working with asbestos have an even greater risk of developing lung cancer if they smoke. Individuals who develop asbestosis, which is a scarring of the lungs, were usually around high asbestos levels for a prolonged period of time. Generally, symptoms of asbestos-related diseases do not appear until decades after exposure.
Almost everyone exposed to minimal levels of asbestos during their lives do not suffer health problems. Unfortunately, if asbestos material is disturbed, fibers can be sent into the atmosphere. If these fibers are inhaled, they can stay in the lung tissue and may eventually cause disease.
Where can I find Asbestos and is it a problem?
Most modern products do not contain asbestos. Any products that contain asbestos must be properly labeled. Unfortunately, until the 1970s, several insulation materials and building products contained asbestos and could release fibers into the air. Some of these common products included:
- Door gaskets in wood stoves, coal stoves and furnaces
- Steam pipes, boilers, and furnace ducts
- Millboard, paper and cement sheets in woodburning stoves and furnaces
- Soundproofing or decorative material
- Patching and joint compounds for ceilings and walls
- Textured paints
- Asbestos shingles, siding and cement roofing
- Resilient floor tiles, adhesives used for installing floor tile, and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring
- Car brake pads and linings and clutch facings
- Asbestos ashes used in gas fireplaces
- Fireproof gloves, ironing board covers, stove-top pads and hairdryers
What should be done about Asbestos in the home?
If you find asbestos in your house and it's in good condition, the best option is to leave it alone. Asbestos material in good condition should not release fibers. Asbestos only becomes dangerous when fibers are sent into the air and are breathed into the lungs.
If you find asbestos, check it routinely. Without touching it, search for any signs of damage, including water damage. If the asbestos material is somewhat damaged, limit access to that area. Make sure you do not further disturb the material by hitting or handling it. Throw away asbestos gloves, ironing board covers and stove-top pads. Call your local environmental officials to learn proper removal techniques.
If the material is significantly damaged or if planned changes to your home may disturb it, enlist a professional's help. Before making significant changes to your home, make sure it does not contain asbestos.