Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral used for the past century as an element in certain manufactured products. The substance consists of microscopic, fibrous strands that can add strength, durability and heat resistance to products such as insulation, gaskets, packing, brake liners, clutches, building materials (such as sheetrock and joint compound), linoleum, shingles and tile. Industrial use of the mineral accelerated in the 1940s and beyond.
It took many years for industry to relay the dangers of asbestos exposure to those exposed to it. Over time it became clear that contact with the airborne asbestos fibers (usually in industrial or construction settings) could cause terrible cancers and other diseases. Workers breathed in or ingested asbestos fibers unknowingly and even exposed their families by bringing home the invisible carcinogen on their clothing and hair from work.
Particularly dangerous occupations include pipefitters, machinists, insulators, maintenance crafts, shipbuilders, plumbers, sheet rock workers, automotive mechanics, construction workers and firefighters. Thankfully today, the commercial use of asbestos is highly regulated in the United States, but employers must be vigilant in following safety protocols.
One of the deadliest associated cancers is mesothelioma, a rare, usually incurable cancer of the lining that surrounds body organs. Most often affected are the lining of the lungs (about 75 percent) or abdomen (about 15 percent), and sometimes that of the heart.
Almost all cases of mesothelioma can be traced to a previous industrial, vocational or household exposure to asbestos. The more intense and longer the exposure, the higher the risk of developing mesothelioma. However, symptoms may not begin to appear until 50 years after contact with the mineral. Chances of developing the disease are higher if you are a man, a smoker, white or Hispanic, or over 50 years old.
Symptoms that lead to a mesothelioma diagnosis can include localized pain, lumps of tissue in the affected area and unusual weight loss. Pleural mesothelioma (of the lung lining) can also cause difficulty breathing and painful coughing, while peritoneal mesothelioma (of the abdominal lining) may be the source of abdominal swelling.
Unfortunately, mesothelioma is usually fatal, but the disease may be treated by surgical removal of cancerous tissue or lining, chemotherapy, radiation, fluid draining and medication. Ongoing research studies may offer participation in clinical trials or experimental treatments. At advanced stages, treatment usually focuses on lessening the symptoms.
Fortunately, mesothelioma is relatively rare. According to the American Cancer Society, the chance is 1 out of 770, with about 2,000 to 3,000 cases per year diagnosed in the U.S. But if you or a loved one is stricken with this deadly disease, you should immediately consult an experienced personal injury attorney to learn about your legal rights and options.
Time is of the essence; often the asbestos exposure that caused the mesothelioma was decades earlier, and you will want to maximize the time for investigation and minimize the chance of missing a legal deadline.
Potential legally responsible parties may include employers, equipment and material manufacturers, premises owners and insurance companies. Legal claims may exist for negligence, product liability, workers' compensation, wrongful death, premises liability and more. Damages may be available for injuries like emotional pain, medical costs, lost wages and earning capacity, loss of enjoyment of life, pain and suffering, and rehabilitation. In certain cases, punitive damages (meant to punish the wrongdoer) may be possible.