Asbestos refers to several types of a fibrous mineral that has been mined and used for centuries. The ancient Greeks noted its “miraculous” durability, tensile strength, and resistance to heat. During the 20th century, American industry made heavy use of asbestos. In construction, asbestos was used to insulate homes; in shipbuilding, it was found in pipes and ships’ boilers. Asbestos also found its way into various products, from brake pads to household appliances to textiles.
Asbestos Regulation and Presence
In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, declared asbestos a health hazard. Scientific studies demonstrated a strong link between exposure to asbestos and damage to the internal organs – especially the lungs. Information about asbestos-related diseases became public knowledge for the first time.
Today, the use of asbestos in the United States is heavily regulated, but not entirely prohibited. Thousands of products are still manufactured using asbestos, and countless buildings – including homes, schools, and military installations – are full of asbestos. Though asbestos is generally harmless if undisturbed, construction projects, renovations, natural disasters, and normal deterioration over time can all cause toxic fibers to be released into the air.
Asbestos Exposure and Health Consequences
Asbestos exposure is not merely a problem of the past – it is a very real danger for many people today. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), well over a million American workers in a variety of occupations come into contact with asbestos on the job each year. Though modern safety equipment and stringent regulations exist to protect the health of workers and their families, accidents, oversights, and outright fraud continue to endanger countless people.
It is estimated that, in the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of people have died from asbestos-related diseases. Each year, approximately 3,000 more people fall victim to the deadly asbestos-caused cancer mesothelioma, and many more are diagnosed with other serious ailments.
During the mid-1900′s, several companies sponsored research into the health effects of asbestos. When the results of these studies proved unfavorable, the companies chose to censor the reports and continue mining and using asbestos. These corporate cover-ups and the widespread health problems that followed spawned one of the largest mass torts in American history – asbestos litigation.
To date, hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs have filed litigation involving asbestos claims. Although the the link between asbestos and mesothelioma has been scientifically established, asbestos litigation is still a hotly debated topic. One problem is the long latency period of mesothelioma. Diagnosing mesothelioma is difficult, and the cancer often does not appear until decades after contact with asbestos. This enormous time gap often makes collecting evidence and building cases difficult.