Once a manufacturing staple, asbestos exposure has led to more than a half century of mesothelioma-related deaths and lawsuits.
Malignant mesothelioma is a particularly aggressive type of cancer which can occur within the thin layers of tissue covering an individual’s various internal organs. It is most often associated with the tissue surrounding the lungs.
The primary cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, a silicate mineral once used commonly in numerous products, such as building materials. Asbestos is still used in some products today, though its use and handling has been regulated due to the associated health risks.
In the United States, lawsuits seeking damages related to mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure date back to 1929. By the 1960s and 1970s, numerous corporations and employers were targets of asbestos-related lawsuits brought by employees who had experience prolonged exposure. Despite modern regulations regarding asbestos, legal challenges are still commonplace today as an individual typically isn’t diagnosed with the disease until 20 to 40 years after exposure to asbestos.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are about 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed each year in the United States. Although some treatments are available, most patients lose their battle with this form of cancer in a very short period of time.
What Is Asbestos?
It has long been established — at least since the 1940s, and suspected much earlier — that the primary cause of mesothelioma is the exposure to asbestos. In the United States, the federal government began placing restrictions on the substance in the early 1970s.
Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring minerals that are resistant to heat and corrosion and because of these qualities the substance is used in the manufacturing of various types of products. Heavy exposure to asbestos is experienced in the construction trade and ship repair trade, especially during the removal or demolition of materials containing asbestos.
Asbestos includes the mineral fibers of chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, and actinolite. Asbestos fibers cannot be seen with the naked eye, and breathing in the fibers can cause a buildup of scar-like tissue in the lungs, referred to as asbestosis. This leads to malignant mesothelioma.
The U.S. government began regulating the use of asbestos in 1973. Throughout the 1970s, asbestos was banned from being used in a number of applications. Regulations were also put in place to govern how asbestos-containing materials — such as building materials being encountered during a building’s renovations — were to be handled.
Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, asbestos may not be used in corrugated paper, rollboard, commercial paper, specialty paper or flooring felt. It is also banned from products not traditionally containing asbestos, otherwise known as “new use” products.
Under the Clean Air Act, asbestos may not be used in pipe insulation, or other facility components, such as hot water tanks. It is also restricted from use as a spray-on application.
Under the Consumer Product Safety Act the use of asbestos is banned from being used in artificial fireplace embers, as well as wall-patching compounds.
In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule under the Toxic Substances Control Act banning the use of asbestos in most products. This ruling, however, was vacated in 1991, with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturning the ban on the majority of the asbestos-containing products originally covered by the EPA’s rule.
Asbestos is currently allowed to be used in a number of ways in the United States, such as in various building materials and automotive equipment; many products containing asbestos are also allowed to be imported into the country. These uses and products, according to the EPA, include: cement corrugated sheet, cement flat sheet, clothing, pipeline wrap, roofing felt, vinyl floor tile, cement shingle, millboard, cement pipe, automatic transmission components, clutch facings, friction materials, disk brake pads, drum brake linings, brake blocks, gaskets, non-roofing coatings and roof coatings.