Asbestos, once hailed as a miracle material, has become synonymous with health risks and legal battles.

Asbestos has been used in construction, manufacturing, and various industries for decades due to its fire-resistant and insulating properties. However, its widespread use has also left a dark legacy of occupational health hazards, with thousands of workers and their families suffering from asbestos-related diseases.

This article will delve into the history of asbestos use, the health risks associated with asbestos exposure, current regulations, safety measures, and how to protect yourself in the workplace.

Una breve historia del asbesto

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral used by humans for over 4,000 years. Its remarkable fireproofing and insulating properties made it a sought-after material in various applications.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used asbestos for many purposes, including wrapping their dead to preserve the ashes, using it as wicks for lamps, and even weaving it into fabric to create fireproof cloths. Asbestos use became more prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries as industrialization and technological advances created a high demand for fire-resistant materials.

Asbestos use in the workplace peaked during the mid-20th century, particularly in industries like construction, shipbuilding, and automotive manufacturing. It was used in various products, including insulation, roofing materials, floor tiles, automotive brake linings, and more. This far-reaching adoption was due to its affordability and impressive insulating properties. Still, it came at a steep price for those exposed to it.

Industries Known for Asbestos Use

The following industries are most closely tied to asbestos exposure:

·        Construction: With its reliance on asbestos-containing materials, the construction industry was a hotspot for asbestos exposure. Workers involved in insulation, drywall, roofing, renovations and demolition jobs were particularly at risk. Asbestos was used in products like cement, floor and ceiling tiles, roofing shingles and insulation, all of which were prevalent in construction.

·        Refineries and Shipyards: Refineries and shipyards used asbestos extensively in insulating pipes, boilers, and machinery due to its fire-retardant properties. Workers in these environments were constantly exposed to asbestos dust and fibers, which posed a grave health risk.

·        Mining and Mechanics: Mining operations, automotive mechanics, and gas stations also had their share of asbestos exposure. Miners encountered asbestos while extracting minerals from the earth, while mechanics dealt with asbestos-containing brakes, clutches, and gaskets. Gas station attendants were exposed to asbestos during vehicle maintenance and repairs.

·        U.S. Military: Asbestos was used extensively by the U.S. military to fireproof all types of vehicles and other artillery, housing, ships and submarines, and even uniforms. Navy vessels, for example, were built with asbestos in their walls and machinery. In fact, asbestos still lingers in many of the more confined spaces within los barcos de la Armada. Hundreds of thousands of veterans were exposed to asbestos fibers during their ordinary course of duty and are eligible for compensation.

The Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure

Prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers can lead to several asbestos-related diseases, including the following common diagnoses:

·        Asbestosis: Asbestosis is a chronic lung condition characterized by the scarring of lung tissue. It is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers, leading to breathing difficulties, persistent coughing, and reduced lung function. While it is not a form of cancer, asbestosis can be debilitating and life-threatening in severe cases.

·        Lung Cancer: Asbestos exposure is a well-documented risk factor for lung cancer. Smokers who are also exposed to asbestos face an even higher risk. Lung cancer caused by asbestos typically develops after many years of exposure, and its symptoms can be similar to those of other types of lung cancer.

·        Mesotelioma: Mesotelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer affecting the lungs, abdomen, or heart lining. It is almost exclusively linked to asbestos exposure, with a latency period of 20-50 years (or more) between exposure and the development of the disease. Mesothelioma is often diagnosed after it’s already in its advanced stages, making it difficult to treat.

·        Asbestos-Related Pleural Disease: This includes pleural plaques, pleural effusion, and pleural thickening, all of which can cause chest pain, breathing difficulties, and and chronic pain and discomfort.

Exposure can also lead to many other chronic illnesses, including COPD, emphysema, asthma, heart disease, and stomach, ovarian and kidney cancer (as well as many more).

The primary cause of asbestos-related health issues is the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers. These tiny, microscopic fibers can become airborne when asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed. Once inhaled, they can become permanently lodged in the lungs and sometimes travel to other areas of the body, leading to long-term health problems.

Asbestos-related diseases are dose-dependent, meaning that the more prolonged and higher the exposure, the greater the risk of developing issues a some point down the line. Smoking combined with asbestos exposure also significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer.

David N. Weissman, M.D., Director, Division of Respiratory Disease Studies, has been quoted as saying, “I couldn’t help but think of a colleague who recently died of mesothelioma. He was a very distinguished physician whose only known exposure to asbestos was as a college student during a summer job. Forty years later, he developed mesothelioma and died at the age of 62.” This is just one example of symptom latency even after limited exposure.

It is essential to understand that asbestos-related diseases are not exclusive to those who worked directly with asbestos, either. Secondhand exposure, such as that which occurs through contact with family members who worked directly with asbestos, can also lead to health risks.

Secondhand Exposure: A Hidden Danger

Secondhand asbestos exposure is a lesser-known but equally hazardous aspect of asbestos-related health risks. Workers, mainly those employed in industrial jobs, who were in close contact with asbestos during their workday carried the fibers home on their clothes, putting their families at risk. Additionally, shared spaces like lunchrooms, where asbestos dust could settle on walls and ceilings, posed a danger to employees from different departments.

Administrators and office workers in high-risk industries and other sectors often found themselves in office facilities directly on worksites. These office spaces were often close to ongoing industrial activities involving asbestos.

While these office workers may not have handled asbestos materials directly, they were still at risk of exposure. Dust and fibers from industrial processes could easily find their way into office spaces, contaminating the air and surfaces. Thus, those working in offices adjacent to areas filled with asbestos, including administrative staff, were unknowingly exposed to asbestos hazards.

Even individuals who were not employees but lived or worked near facilities with asbestos exposure, such as those residing near asbestos mines, were not immune to secondhand exposure.

Latency: The Silent Threat

One of the most insidious aspects of asbestos exposure is the latency period. Even though many buildings have undergone asbestos remediation, the damage from exposure in the 1980s and 1990s may only be surfacing now. Diseases caused by asbestos exposure, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis, often take decades to manifest.

This delayed onset of symptoms can catch victims off guard, making it crucial to be aware of the risks associated with past asbestos exposure and seek medical evaluation if you suspect you might be at risk.

The Dangers of Friable Asbestos

Asbestos, when contained, is generally less hazardous as long as it remains intact and undisturbed. However, over time, asbestos-containing materials can degrade, becoming friable, which means they can easily crumble into a powder when disturbed. Friable asbestos poses a severe risk, as it can become airborne, leading to inhalation and increasing the likelihood of health issues.

Buildings that once contained asbestos may now be in disrepair, with deteriorating insulation, ceilings, or flooring, making them potential sources of friable asbestos. This poses a significant risk to those who may come into contact with such materials.

The American Lung Association notes that there is a risk that once inhaled, some asbestos fibers will never leave the body.

Protecting Yourself in the Workplace

If you work in an industry where asbestos may still be present or have concerns about asbestos exposure, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your coworkers:

·        Know Your Risks: Understand the nature of your work and whether it involves potential asbestos exposure. If you are unsure, consult your employer or safety officer for information.

·        Follow Safety Procedures: Adhere to safety procedures and guidelines established by your employer or local regulations. Use PPE, such as respirators, gloves, and protective clothing, as required.

·        Avoid Disturbing Asbestos: Do not disturb or damage materials containing asbestos. If you encounter suspect materials, inform your supervisor or safety officer.

·        Proper Ventilation: Work in well-ventilated areas; good airflow can help disperse asbestos fibers. Avoid eating, drinking, or smoking in areas where asbestos may exist.

·        Shower and Change: After working in environments with potential asbestos exposure, shower and change into clean clothing before leaving the workplace to prevent the spread of asbestos fibers.

·        Family Awareness: If you work in an industry with potential asbestos exposure, ensure your family knows the risks and takes precautions to avoid secondhand exposure.

·        Regular Health Check-ups: If you have a history of asbestos exposure, consider regular health check-ups to monitor your lung health.

Individuals who have suffered from asbestos-related illnesses (as well as their families) may be entitled to compensation for medical expenses, pain and suffering, and other damages caused by negligence associated with exposure.

There are several avenues through which a victim can seek compensation, including the following:

·        Workers’ Compensation: Employees who developed asbestos-related illnesses due to workplace exposure may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

·        Asbestos Trust Funds: Many asbestos manufacturing companies established trust funds to compensate victims. These funds are available to individuals exposed to asbestos through the company’s products.

·        Legal Claims: Victims of asbestos exposure can file personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits against responsible parties. These lawsuits may lead to significant settlements or jury verdicts.

The Role of Attorneys in Asbestos Exposure Cases

Seeking compensation for asbestos-related illnesses is a complex process that requires legal expertise.

Experienced asbestos exposure attorneys can help in several ways, including:

·        Case Evaluation: Attorneys can assess the merits of a case and determine the best course of action.

·        Gathering Evidence: Lawyers can help gather evidence to build a strong case, including medical records, work history, and witness testimony.

·        Legal Representation: Attorneys can represent clients in negotiations with asbestos trust funds, workers’ compensation claims, or in court.

·        Maximizing Compensation: Attorneys strive to maximize compensation to cover medical expenses, lost income, pain and suffering, and other damages.

In asbestos exposure cases, time is of the essence. Due to the latency period of asbestos-related diseases, it is crucial to seek legal counsel as soon as possible. Filing a claim early can help secure essential evidence and improve the chances of obtaining fair compensation when it’s needed the most.

Asbestos in the Workplace: The Bottom Line

Asbestos exposure remains a significant concern, even years after efforts to mitigate its use and impact. The risks extend beyond industrial workers to include office staff, veterans, and even individuals who lived near asbestos-exposed facilities.

The medical consequences of asbestos exposure are severe and often latent, making early detection and compensation critical. Asbestos exposure victims should promptly seek legal counsel to explore their options for compensation, whether through lawsuits, settlements, or asbestos trust funds.

Attorneys specializing in asbestos exposure cases play a vital role in helping victims secure the compensation they deserve, alleviating some of the burdens that come with asbestos-related diseases.

While the widespread use of asbestos has significantly decreased in many regions due to regulations and safety measures, there are still industries where exposure is a risk. Employers and employees must be vigilant in identifying and mitigating these risks and stay informed about the latest safety guidelines and regulations.

Asbestos-related diseases are severe and often irreversible, making prevention and early detection crucial. While we may not be able to change the past, we can certainly take steps to protect ourselves and future generations from the health risks associated with asbestos exposure. Knowledge and vigilance are your best allies in ensuring a safe and healthy workplace.