What is Asbestos?
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed December 03, 2018
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You may have heard about asbestos in the context of illnesses and lawsuits, but what is asbestos, exactly, and why is it so harmful? Valued for its strength, heat resistance, and insulating properties, asbestos was once added to a wide variety of consumer and construction products, ranging from building materials to brake pads. And since it is naturally occurring and quite abundant, it became a favorite material for certain applications until its health hazards were confirmed and lawsuits began to be filed.
Why is Asbestos Bad for Your Health?
Because of its durable, fibrous nature, asbestos can produce dust that, when inhaled, becomes deposited in the lungs -- causing or contributing to the development of serious, life-threatening illnesses including asbestosis (a fibrous scarring of the lungs) and mesothelioma (a malignant form of cancer in the lining of the chest or abdominal cavities). These illnesses generally require repeated and long-term exposure in order to cause illness, so one-time exposure is seldom a concern.
Because of health concerns, all new uses of asbestos in the United States were termporarily banned in July 1989. That year, the EPA published Asbestos: Manufacture, Importation, Processing, and Distribution in Commerce Prohibitions, the effect of which was to eventually ban about 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 EPA banned the use of spray-on materials containing more than 1 percent asbestos to building, structures, and other applications.
Even with government regulation, asbestos-related lawsuits have been filed regularly since the 1960's, and continue to be filed frequently today. But despite its legality of many applications involving asbestos, following the overturning of the 1989 ban, manufacturers mainly have avoided using it in order to limit their legal exposure.
How to Identify Asbestos
Since asbestos can cause such grave (and sometimes lethal) harm to humans, you may wonder how to identify asbestos in order to avoid exposure. The truth is, you likely won't encounter it in nature since it must be mined out of the ground first. And since it's typically fused into finished products, you may not recognize asbestos when confronted with it. Therefore, it's important to understand the types of products where asbestos may be lurking, including the following:
- Pipeline wrapping
- Roofing felt
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Cement shingles and other cement products
- Disk brake pads and other car parts
- Roof coatings
Who Is at Risk for Asbestos Exposure?
Many people wonder if they are, or have been, exposed to the health risks caused by asbestos. Health hazards from asbestos dust have been recognized in workers exposed in shipbuilding trades, asbestos mining and milling, manufacturing of asbestos textiles and other asbestos products, insulation work in the construction and building trades, brake repair, and a variety of other trades. Demolition workers, drywall removers, and firefighters also may be exposed to asbestos dust.
People whose work brings them into contact with asbestos -- workers who renovate buildings with asbestos in them, for example -- may inhale fibers that are in the air; this is called occupational exposure. Workers' families may inhale asbestos fibers released by clothes that have been in contact with asbestos-containing materials; this is called paraoccupational exposure. People who live or work near asbestos-related operations might inhale asbestos fibers that have been released into the air by such operation; 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
Although it is known that the risk to workers increases with heavier exposure and longer exposure time, investigators have found asbestos-related diseases in individuals who had only brief exposures. Workers who develop 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 certain amount of time after the injury was discovered.
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 he or she was in before an injury, this usually is not possible. Instead, economic compensation thought to be equivalent to the victim's damage is awarded. A plaintiff who can prove that he or she was 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
Another kind of damages that plaintiffs injured by asbestos may be able to recover are "punitive" damages. Punitive damages are intended not to compensate the victim for his or her losses, but to punish the defendant's wrongful conduct. Although punitive damage awards receive a lot of media attention, they are in fact quite rare. The amount of punitive damages awarded is usually based on the wealth of the defendant and the magnitude of its wrongful conduct. Some states require that a portion of punitive damages awards be paid to the state.
Have an Attorney Evaluate Your Asbestos Claim
If you're concerned about potential exposure to asbestos, or if you or a loved one suffer from asbestosis, mesothelioma, or another medical condition associated with asbestos exposure, you should take action to protect your legal rights. A great first step is to get a claim evaluation from an attorney experienced with asbestos-related matters.
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Contact a qualified product liability attorney to make sure your rights are protected.