The use of asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral known for its heat resistance, durability, and insulation ability, has been widespread in industry. 

However, the health risks associated with exposure have resulted in strict regulations and a significant decline in its use in more recent years. 

Despite these measures, asbestos continues to pose a significant threat to public health because remnants of the mineral still linger in older structures as well as in the soil and water surrounding former mines. The broader societal and economic impact of asbestos-related diseases is evident in research and prevention efforts, as well as legal advocacy for those impacted.

History of Asbestos

Asbestos use dates back thousands of years, when ancient civilizations recognized it as a “miracle mineral” due to its fire-resistant properties. The microscopic fibers were used in pottery and other forms of art, clothing, tapestries such as burial shrouds and insulation. During the late 19th century, and early 20th, the Industrial Age caused asbestos use to skyrocket. Because of its versatility, durability, and inexpensiveness, it became a common ingredient in various products such as construction materials, textiles, and automotive parts.

Asbestos continued to be used in various applications for many years despite the fact that workers and their families, including their children, were getting sick, primarily with lung diseases. The companies that employed these workers kept hidden the fact that exposure was likely the cause. That is, until they simply couldn’t any longer, and the attraction of asbestos was overshadowed by its obvious impact on human health.

How Asbestos Enters and Impacts the Body

Asbestos fibers can become airborne and easily enter the body through inhalation or ingestion. Once inside, they embed themselves in lung tissues, leading to inflammation and scarring. Sometimes, these fibers also travel and stick to other areas of the body, including the stomach lining. Prolonged exposure can ultimately lead to life-threatening diseases – often decades later. Asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma as well as many other illnesses can result, significantly impacting quality of life and often leading to death.

Early diagnosis and treatment is key. Yet, again, this is often easier said than done. Symptoms are typically not immediate, resulting in late diagnosis and reactive treatment measures once they finally become evident.

Long-term Environmental Contamination

Environmental contamination resulting from this toxic substance remains a prevalent concern with asbestos-ladened areas often being deemed Superfund sites. Once receiving this designation, the Superfund program, managed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is responsible for cleaning it up.

Asbestos contamination can be considered both natural and man-made. Since asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, areas in which asbestos was mined have high concentrations of these fibers. Thus, they are automatically harmful areas in which to live and work. Manmade components containing asbestos insulation, flooring and ceiling tiles, and roofing shingles, also break down over time, releasing harmful fibers into the air. These can settle into soil or penetrate water sources.

Nearly every building constructed before the mid-1980s contained asbestos products and building materials, and many still do.

Older residential homes and other aging structures remain an issue given the one-time popularity of asbestos use. This includes schools built prior to the 1980s that hundreds, if not thousands, of children continue to attend. Asbestos can lurk in the walls and ceilings, as well as in textured paints, tiling and in other areas that children frequent during most of their day. Moreover, asbestos has been found in art supplies including crayons and clay.

Structures made of concrete and cement, such as bridges or freeways, also pose a risk. Although nonfriable asbestos (that which is encapsulated) is not harmful, once these structures wear down or are demolished and replaced, fibers become airborne. As these structures age and deteriorate over time, the likelihood of fibers being released increases significantly.

Second-hand Exposure

In addition to direct exposure to asbestos, second-hand exposure remains a major problem. Family members living with individuals who worked with asbestos, have been inadvertently exposed by riding in the same vehicles and coming into contact with work clothing, lunch pails, tools, shoes and other on-the-job items.

Spouses and children of asbestos workers have developed deadly diseases directly linked to the toxic mineral including asbestosis and mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure in your childhood can turn into asbestos-related cancer and other diseases as an adult.

The prolonged latency period associated with asbestos-related diseases poses considerable challenges to diagnosis due to failure to correlate past exposure with present ailments. The majority of adverse consequences have arisen from encounters with asbestos when it was popular in industry. Unsuspecting victims impacted secondhandedly are at increased risk of not attributing their symptoms to asbestos exposure.

Victims of asbestos exposure can seek compensation to help with medical bills, lost wages, and other expenses that arise after diagnosis or after the death of a loved one. Asbestos attorneys are tasked with helping their clients determine liability and ensuring accountability from the parties involved in these cases. An attorney will either help a client file a lawsuit or will suggest pursuing asbestos trust funds, which can result in a quicker (albeit smaller) payout. These trusts were established by companies once it became evident that they’d be hit with a slew of litigation.

The Multi-faceted Impact of Asbestos on Public Health

As mentioned previously, when asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or they deteriorate over time, tiny fibers can become airborne and be easily inhaled or ingested. Once inside the body, the sharp, needle-like fibers can penetrate the tissues and organs, leading to severe health consequences including various forms of cancer, asbestosis, and other lung problems.

Awareness campaigns and educational programs have also been launched in recent years to inform the public about the risks associated with asbestos exposure and promote preventative measures. Many countries have banned the use of asbestos altogether and the United States has greatly restricted it.

The latency period between asbestos exposure and the onset of symptoms can range from 10 to 50 years, making it difficult to identify and diagnose asbestos-related diseases in a timely manner. This prolonged latency period underscores the importance of proactive measures to prevent asbestos exposure and protect public health. While the damage of the past cannot be undone, it is important to limit exposure moving forward so the burden on health will lessen over time and society can become more proactive in keeping these numbers low.