Asbestos may have first been used four thousand years ago in lamps and candles. Since then, many exploited the mineral fibers’ strength and fire- and heat-resistant properties in thousands of products over the centuries. Along with the mining, processing, use, and manufacture of asbestos products came the diseases caused by inhaling and swallowing the fibers.
Ancient Greeks and Romans documented health problems of those who mined asbestos from stone quarries. Greek geographer Strabo wrote about a “sickness of the lungs” of slaves weaving asbestos into cloth. Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote of the “disease of slaves.” He also described how miners used a thin membrane from a goat or lamb’s bladder to prevent inhaling asbestos fibers as they worked.
The modern world re-learned asbestos’ dangers over time, according to a 2004 article in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, which lists the published findings of medical research that gradually painted the grim picture of what those using asbestos faced.
British Researchers and Occupational Safety Officials Take the Lead
The first medical paper on potential asbestos dangers was published in the British Medical Journal in 1924. Pathologist William Cooke wrote it. It briefly discussed the illness and death caused by lung fibrosis and tuberculosis suffered by Nellie Kershaw. She worked in a factory making asbestos products. Other papers soon followed.
In 1928, Britain’s factory inspectorate investigated asbestos’ dangers after a case of pulmonary fibrosis of a Glasgow asbestos worker became known. Their job was to determine if his disease was linked to his work and whether others faced similar risks.
Edward Merewether, a medical inspector, wrote his findings in October 1929. He found that:
- Occupational asbestos dust exposure, especially for extended periods at high concentrations, was a ‘‘definite occupational risk among asbestos workers as a class’’
- Lung fibrosis that may result might cause ‘‘complete disablement’’ and death
- He endorsed the view publicly expressed a few months earlier that a ‘‘new’’ disease, pulmonary asbestosis, had been discovered
- Asbestos was the cause of a new, preventable, fatal disease
- Dust control could significantly lengthen the time someone working with asbestos may develop fibrosis, and, over time, as control measures improved, may end the threat completely
Merewether’s colleague, the engineering inspector of factories, Charles Price, investigated and suggested practical measures to control asbestos dust. National regulations were enacted in 1931 in Britain. Dust control measures in factories started in 1933.
It was believed these actions would prevent health problems in factory workers. Cases of asbestosis dropped, but the rest of the world didn’t follow Britain’s dust-control actions. It’s as if their lessons learned were ignored.
The Links Between Asbestos, Cancer, and Mesothelioma Becomes Known
A few isolated cases of asbestosis in insulation workers were reported in medical journals as early as the 1930s. Suspicion that it might cause lung cancer started that decade. This belief became more persuasive in the 1940s with the publishing of more studies.
In 1955, Richard Doll established a causal association between asbestosis and lung cancer. He shared the common belief that despite his findings, asbestos products could continue to be manufactured safely if workplace safety measures continued and improved.
During the 1950s, South African researchers J C Wagner, Christopher Sleggs, and Paul Marchand started identifying mesothelioma cases in Griqualand West, where crocidolite asbestos was mined. Cases in other mining areas weren’t found, so there was a belief that asbestos wasn’t the cause.
Papers published between 1960 and 1962 stated there was a “possible association” between pleural mesothelioma and asbestos exposure. Research published in 1964 and 1965 caused the general medical recognition that mesothelioma was an asbestos-related disease.
One article stated that by ”the end of 1965 it was clear that asbestos workers are at special risk of developing…mesothelioma.” Asbestos dust (at least certain types) was widely believed to be a principal, if not the only, mesothelioma cause.
Research Published in the 1960s Starts to Show the Scope of the Problem
Also in the 1960s:
- It was shown that asbestos-related diseases weren’t limited to workers heavily exposed in asbestos factories. Those suffering from these diseases included insulation workers, users of other asbestos-containing products, and people living near asbestos factories
- There were suggestions that people living in cities and towns far from asbestos mines or factories might be in danger because they lived among vehicles and buildings containing asbestos
- In Britain, despite its regulations, showed some evidence asbestos-related diseases weren’t declining and may have increased
- Irving J. Selikoff of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and his colleagues produced many study results showing insulators who worked with asbestos material in the US faced an ”important risk” of developing asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma, and possibly gastrointestinal cancer
Asbestos-related diseases started attracting more press attention in the 1960s as well. In 1969, the first third-party products liability lawsuit claiming personal injury from asbestos was filed in the US. This was the beginning of an eventual avalanche of legal actions that led to the bankruptcy of most US companies involved with asbestos.
Call Us Today For A Free Consultation
Satterley & Kelley, PLLC, attorneys are your boots on the ground if you or a family member you love suffers from mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness in Kentucky. To reach our office in Louisville, call us at 855-385-9532. You can also complete our contact form for a free initial consultation where we can discuss possible compensation for the harm you suffer.