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Asbestos: How Do You Get Exposed?

About Asbestos

The word ‘asbestos’ has grown infamous and resonates as a silent killer similar to ‘carbon monoxide’, ‘trans fats’, or ‘radiation’.  The fear of being contaminated with this potentially deadly fiber has caused us to be skeptical of entering old buildings, or at least breathing inside of them, and has led to regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA.) However, the usefulness of asbestos as a raw material is what originally made it popular and continues to push industries to find safer ways to implement the fiber while protecting its handlers from cancers such as Mesothelioma and diseases such Asbestosis within regulatory rules. 

History/Uses

Asbestos is a natural mineral first mined in Canada in the 1870’s.  Few substitutes contain the same qualities as asbestos; the material is flexible and strong which makes it appealing to builders and manufacturers.  Asbestos will also not burn, making it a great flame retardant and heat resistor.  Use in the United States began in the early 1900’s when it was purposed for insulating steam engines.  It wasn’t until after World War II however that its use really took off.  Asbestos’ heyday ranged from the 1940’s to 1970’s where it was extensively used in the construction and renovation of public buildings and schools.  The EPA estimates that there are asbestos containing materials (ACM) in most of the nation’s approximately 107,000 schools and 733,000 public buildings.  There are also as many as 3,000 different products that contain asbestos including plastics, cement pipe, insulation, brake linings, insulation, floor tiles and other textile products.  Most asbestos products are still legally manufactured, processed and imported according to the EPA.

How Exposure Happens

The problem with using asbestos or ACMs is the release of asbestos fibers into the air when products or materials that contain asbestos are broken, crushed, sanded, cut or generally disturbed.  Inhalation is the most common method of ingestion but it is also possible for the fibers to penetrate through the skin.  The danger with removing asbestos products in standing structures such as schools and public or private buildings is the act of removing inherently causes a disturbance.  In some cases it is safer to leave the asbestos there.  The difficulty in manufacturing new products with asbestos also lays on the continual disturbance of the material.  When fibers are released into the air, there are typically three groups of people that are affected.  Obviously the workers are in harm’s way and extreme safety measures are taken to protect them, which we will discuss in more detail later.  Workers’ families can also come into contact with asbestos if the fibers are taken home via the worker’s clothes.  The third group, which can be said are the least consensual of the three, are those that live near or around facilities where asbestos is being used.  Because the fibers of asbestos are small and light, they can remain in the air for long periods of time.

Effects of Exposure

The effects of exposure to asbestos can be dependent on many factors including the length of time exposed, the concentration of fibers in the air, the protective devices worn and even the rate of breathing of the person exposed.  In many cases the effects are not realized until many years after the exposure.  Asbestos has been shown to cause the following types of diseases and cancer, typically from inhalation:

  • Mesothelioma - approximately 3,000 new cases are diagnosed per year according to the American Cancer Society and this number appears to be going down due decreased exposure to asbestos, which is almost exclusively linked to this rare cancer.  Mesothelioma generally starts in the thin membranes of the chest or abdominal cavity.
  • Lung Cancer – accounts for the largest number of deaths from exposure to asbestos where those involved with the mining and manufacture of asbestos have a much higher rate of lung cancer than the general population.  When combined with other factors such as smoking, the rate increases even more.
  • Asbestosis - a non-cancerous but serious disease that causes scaring to the tissues of the lung.  This leads to shortness of breath and chronic cough and can lead to cardiac failure as well.  Typically associated with those that work with asbestos for long periods of time. 

Regulating Asbestos

As mentioned above, two governmental agencies are generally tasked with regulating the use of asbestos, the EPA and OSHA.  The EPA’s focus is to protect the general public.  This is extremely broad term but tasks include providing subsidies to school districts to reduce the exposure of asbestos, banning or regulating asbestos use in certain industries, or controlling practices in demolishing buildings where asbestos may be installed.  OSHA’s responsibility is more focused on the workers and protecting those who will be exposed to the harmful material on the job.  Their role is to set and uphold standards for appropriate handling of the material, regulating protective gear, and air quality within facilities to name a few.

Compensation for Injuries

The emotional and physical toll of living with cancer or chronic diseases is extremely high and very difficult for victims and families.  The financial troubles that follow may not be that far behind. Those diagnosed with illnesses due to exposure to asbestos may be entitled to compensation.  Compensation can come in the form of a Personal Injury Lawsuit, Wrongful Death Lawsuit, or Asbestos Bankruptcy Trust Claim.  Financial compensation may make up for medical bills, lost wages, caregiver costs, pain and suffering,  and funeral expenses.  Because of time constraints on filing lawsuits it is always best to talk with an attorney as soon as possible after diagnosis.