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What Is Asbestos?

You may have heard about asbestos in the context of public health, illnesses, and lawsuits. But what is asbestos, exactly, and why is it so harmful? 

Asbestos is durable, heat resistant, and has insulating properties. Manufacturers once added asbestos to various consumer and construction products, ranging from building materials to brake pads. When companies first introduced asbestos, officials were unaware of its dangerous health effects.

Asbestos is a natural material and is abundant. It became a favorite material for specific applications until the EPA confirmed its health hazards. That's when people first started filing lawsuits. Victims have been filing suits ever since.

This article will discuss:

Why Is Asbestos Bad for Your Health?

Because of its fibrous nature, asbestos produces dust that, when inhaled, becomes deposited in the lungs. This can cause or contribute to developing severe, life-threatening illnesses, including asbestosis (a fibrous scarring of the lungs) and mesothelioma (a malignant form of cancer in the chest lining or abdominal cavities). These illnesses generally result from repeated and long-term exposure. Typically, a one-time exposure is seldom a concern.

History of Asbestos Use in the United States

For many years, companies used asbestos in hundreds, if not thousands, of products and applications. However, because of health concerns, the United States temporarily banned all new uses of asbestos in July 1989.

That same year, the EPA published Asbestos: Manufacture, Importation, Processing, and Distribution in Commerce Prohibitions. This led to a ban on approximately 94 percent of the asbestos used in the U.S. (based on 1985 estimates).

However, that rule was vacated after a challenge in federal court, thus overturning the 1989 ban. In 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of spray-on materials that contained more than one percent asbestos in buildings, structures, and other applications.

Even with government regulation, people have filed asbestos-related lawsuits regularly since the 1960s and continue to do so today. Even though some uses of asbestos are legal, most manufacturers have avoided using it to limit their legal exposure.

How To Identify Asbestos

Since asbestos can cause grave and sometimes lethal health problems, you may wonder how to identify it. You likely won't encounter it in nature since companies must mine it before use. It is one of those carcinogenic elements that is hard to detect.

Since manufacturers typically fuse asbestos into finished products, you may not recognize asbestos when you encounter it. The CDC and other agencies have confirmed that asbestos may be lurking in many products, including the following:

  • Pipeline wrapping
  • Roofing felt
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Gaskets
  • Fireproofing
  • Cement shingles and other cement products
  • Disk brake pads and other car parts
  • Roof coatings
  • Talc

One of the best ways to avoid lung disease and other illnesses caused by asbestos is to avoid asbestos-containing products.

Different Types of Asbestos

Investigating contents is one way to determine if a product contains asbestos. There are several types of asbestos. The EPA, Department of Health, National Cancer Institute, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and other agencies have determined that almost all types of asbestos can be harmful.

The more common types of asbestos include:

  • Crocidolite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Vermiculite
  • Actinolite
  • Tremolite
  • Chrysotile asbestos
  • Amosite

Even if a product contains low levels of asbestos, it can pose a risk of exposure. You must avoid any products or buildings that still have asbestos in them. This includes everything from roof shingles and asbestos cement to asbestos insulation.

If you aren't sure what to do, contact a company that specializes in the removal of asbestos. There are dozens of asbestos abatement companies near you that can come out and test your property.

Who Is at Risk for Asbestos Exposure?

Many people wonder if they are, or have been, exposed to the health risks caused by asbestos. Many individuals become exposed to asbestos minerals through work. Others became sick from asbestos exposure and cancer risk in their homes or other buildings.

Regardless of what you did to come in contact with this dangerous chemical, you want to do whatever you can to avoid serious health problems. Just the risk of asbestos exposure can be terrifying and require ongoing health care.

Many Workers Are at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Many workers face health hazards from asbestos dust. This dust gets into the workers' lung tissue and can cause many health issues. Even today, many employees become sick with either malignant mesothelioma or other lung diseases.

Some of the occupations that have a higher risk of asbestos exposure include:

  • Shipyard workers
  • Asbestos mining and milling
  • Manufacturing of asbestos textiles and other asbestos products
  • Insulation work in the construction and building trades
  • Brake repair workers
  • Demolition workers
  • Drywall removers
  • Firefighters

People whose work brings them into contact with asbestos — workers who renovate buildings with asbestos in them, for example — may inhale fibers in the air. OSHA deems this to be occupational exposure. OSHA has implemented many rules and regulations to address this issue. Sadly, thousands of people still get sick every year.

Other Groups With a Heightened Risk

It isn't only the people who work around asbestos who are at risk. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed that workers' family members may inhale asbestos fibers released by clothes that came in contact with asbestos-containing materials. They end up suffering from secondhand exposure. This is called para-occupational exposure.

People who live or work near asbestos-related operations might inhale asbestos fibers that have been released into the air by such processes. This is called neighborhood exposure.

The amount of asbestos to which someone is exposed will vary, according to:

  • The concentration of fibers in the air
  • The duration of exposure
  • The person's breathing rate (workers doing manual labor breathe faster)
  • Weather conditions
  • Any protective devices the person might be wearing

The risk to workers increases with heavier exposure and longer exposure time. However, investigators have found that asbestos-related diseases in individuals with only brief exposures also rise over time.

How Long Can It Take To Detect an Asbestos-Related Illness?

People who have developed asbestos-related diseases may show no signs of illness for a long time after their first exposure. It can take from 10 to 40 years for symptoms of an asbestos-related condition to appear.

Because of this time-lapse issue, many states allow people to file lawsuits within a specific time after discovering their injury. Thousands of Americans have already filed lawsuits after becoming sick from exposure to forms of asbestos.

Compensation for Asbestos Exposure Injuries

Many effects of toxic asbestos exposure are permanent and irreversible. Although the law seeks to place an injured person in the position they were in before an injury, this usually is not possible with asbestos-related injuries. Instead, plaintiffs can seek economic compensation.

A plaintiff who can prove that they were exposed to asbestos may be able to recover for both the economic and noneconomic consequences of that exposure, including:

  • The cost of past and future medical care
  • The cost of necessary rehabilitation
  • Lost past and future wages
  • Lost earning capacity
  • Lost enjoyment of life
  • Emotional distress
  • Past and future pain and suffering

One question is whether you can demand punitive damages in your asbestos claim. The judges rarely grant this type of compensation. Unless your personal injury attorney can prove that the defendant intentionally hid or lied about asbestos exposure, you will be limited to the damages discussed above.

Have an Attorney Evaluate Your Asbestos Claim

If you're concerned about potential asbestos exposure, or if you or a loved one have asbestosis, mesothelioma, or another medical condition associated with asbestos exposure, you should take action to protect your legal rights. A significant first step is to get a claim evaluation from an attorney experienced with asbestos-related matters.

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