Most people have heard general cautions about asbestos and are aware that it is rarely used these days because it is dangerous. But most don’t realize why it was used, how many people are still exposed to it, and what legal options exist for those who are exposed to this hazardous material in the workplace. 

Asbestos has been used for thousands of years, dating back to ancient times, when Egyptian Pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos-based linen for burial. It is an inexpensive and durable natural mineral, with the advantages of making products fibrous and strong, resistant to heat and corrosion, lightweight, sound-absorbent, insulating, and non-soluble in water. In the 20th century, mining for asbestos boomed and the material was in high demand. Asbestos was mixed into many construction and manufacturing materials, including plaster, pipes, shingles, drywall, ducts, panels, insulation, sealants, and paint. Most buildings constructed before the 1980s, when the federal government placed heavy restrictions on its use, have detectable levels of asbestos still today.

There are several different tipos de asbesto, all of which can break down into small particles that may be inhaled or swallowed. Because asbestos has no flavor or scent, people are often unaware of inhaling or ingesting fibers. When these highly durable fibers enter the body, they do not break down, but rather embed themselves in tissue (particularly lung tissue), potentially causing health problems for those who are exposed, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and multiple types of cancer. 

Asbestos was largely banned in the United States in 1989, but because many buildings still contain the material, it is important to know the risks of asbestos exposure, who is at highest risk, and what the legal options are if one becomes ill from exposure. 

Risks of Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos products were used in the creation of nearly every building constructed before the 1980s, especially in public spaces such as schools and government buildings. The risk of being exposed to asbestos in the workplace is significant, especially for people who work in occupations with high use of asbestos products, such as construction, manufacturing, mechanical work with vehicles, and the U.S. Armed Forces.  Residential asbestos is also concerning, since most homes built between 1920 and 1980 have some level of asbestos contamination. In both residential and public spaces, the risk of exposure to asbestos is possible. 

Construction, Renovation and Demolition

Roofing materials are some of the most common items containing asbestos in buildings constructed during the 20th century. Concrete also frequently contains this dangerous fibrous material, and insulation and HVAC systems often contain asbestos. Anyone who lives or works in a building constructed before 1980 should test the building for asbestos before doing any structural work, as removing asbestos can cause it to break into small particles that may be inhaled or swallowed. 

El risks of exposure to asbestos are real. While a person may not realize they have inhaled or ingested asbestos, the tiny particles make a permanent home in the body, eventually leading to scarring and internal damage that can cause chronic illness and even terminal disease. Symptoms may take up to 50 years or more to appear, but then can become malignant and non-malignant diseases, both of which can be extremely painful and incurable.

The health risks of asbestos exposure include:

●   Mesothelioma 

●   Lung cancer

●   Laryngeal cancer

●   Ovarian cancer

●   Stomach cancer

●   Colon cancer

●   Pharyngeal cancer

●   Abestosis (chronic lung disease)

●   Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

●   Atelectasis (collapsed lung)

●   Pleural effusion (collection of fluid around the lungs)

●   Pericardial effusion (collection of fluid around the heart)

Case studies and statistics show that those who work in construction, manufacturing, mechanical work, and the U.S. Armed Forces are at high risk of asbestos exposure, but DIY project enthusiasts and people in other careers, including janitors, may also be at risk.

Janitorial Work May Increase Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Janitors are generally responsible for keeping buildings clean, orderly, and in good condition. A janitor’s responsibilities may be both inside of buildings and outdoors, and may include not just cleaning but also maintenance and landscaping. 

Janitors working in public school buildings (or other structures) constructed prior to 1989 are at risk of exposure to asbestos as part of their everyday job requirements. More than half of the public school buildings in the United States were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and most contain the harmful mineral. In fact, even as late as 2019 to the present, more than a dozen schools in Philadelphia have been closed for asbestos-related renovations and control. 

A 1991 report states that janitors and other maintenance workers are at higher risk of asbestos-related illnesses. The estudio found that there is potential for occupational exposure to asbestos dust for public school employees specifically. Janitors and custodians may unknowingly disturb or displace asbestos-containing materials as part of routine housekeeping activities, causing increased airborne particles which they may then inhale or ingest.  

Agencia de Protección Ambiental (EPA)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established the Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools rule in order to combat this issue, which requires school districts to inspect their school buildings for asbestos-containing building materials, prepare asbestos management plans, and perform asbestos response actions to prevent or reduce hazards. While janitors are not typically involved in asbestos removal, they are likely to be asked to repair broken or crumbling cement, do minor repairs to HVAC systems, fix roof leaks, and address damaged insulation, which could expose them to asbestos. Even deteriorating caulking and pipe insulation can release asbestos particles. Older buildings typically have more maintenance needs, so exposure risk increases with the age of school buildings. 

Today, because of Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, janitors may have some training on how to handle asbestos issues and reduce risk of exposure. La Ley de Respuesta a Emergencias por Peligro de Asbesto (AHERA) requires schools to have an asbestos management plan, complete inspections of asbestos-containing materials every three years, train staff in asbestos awareness, and respond appropriately to asbestos hazards. Janitors and school custodians should be on the lookout for any damaged common school building materials that may contain asbestos, such as ceiling tiles, vinyl flooring, textured paint, HVAC ductwork, cement sheets, gutters, and roofing. Repairs to any known or potential asbestos-containing materials should involve only sealing or covering the area while any removal should be completed only by a professional in asbestos abatement. 

Asbestos industry cover-up

Unfortunately, in decades past, many school janitors were not informed about the risks of asbestos exposure and were often told that it was safe if they did raise concerns. Millions of people worked with asbestos without any protective gear, putting their health at risk. In addition, those workers unknowingly carried asbestos particles home on their clothes and in their vehicles, causing potential exposición de segunda mano to their families, including their children. Decades later, health professionals are seeing the outcomes of primary and secondary asbestos exposure in their patients. 

El history of litigation surrounding asbestos-related illnesses is long and complicated. Early lawsuits were unsuccessful. Industry leaders denied the health risks of asbestos exposure and refused to change their practices even in the face of mounting medical evidence. Because of the long latency period between exposure and evidence of disease, documentation of a direct correlation between asbestos and disease took years to establish. 

Today, there are a number of legal options for those suffering from asbestos-related illnesses and families who have lost loved ones to related diseases. 

Fideicomisos de asbesto were founded after decades of litigation against asbestos companies and expensive settlements which caused them to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The courts ordered these companies to establish trusts to compensate victims who were unknowingly exposed and who developed related illnesses. Close to $30 billion dollars were placed in various trusts, and 40% of those funds are still unclaimed. Each trust has criteria that must be met for a person to gain compensation, typically including information about work or exposure history, medical history, and any other relevant information. 

Making a trust claim is typically much faster than filing a traditional lawsuit because these funds eliminate the time required for court proceedings. There are trusts related to laborers and to general construction workers who may have been exposed to asbestos and suffered health consequences, and janitors may qualify.

 Some of the established trusts for which janitors may qualify include:

●   Corporación Congoleum

●   Industrias mundiales de Armstrong

●   Corporación GAF

●   Turner & Newall

●   ABB Lummus

●   W.R. Grace

It is important to note that people suffering from exposición de segunda mano and related illnesses are also eligible for compensation from these trusts. 

While trusts are usually the fastest and easiest way to gain compensation for asbestos-related illnesses, there are other options, including traditional litigation, Worker’s Compensation, Veteran’s benefits, FELA Claims for railroad workers, Maritime Claims for seamen and offshore workers, SSDI and SSI.

An experienced asbestos attorney can help a person decide which compensation route is best for them. While receiving funds will not eliminate the issue, it can help relieve some of the emotional and financial burden of being diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness.