Asbestos is a natural mineral fiber that may cause mesothelioma in those who breathe in its fibers. Asbestos was mined, used to create products, and sold worldwide. Its uses are largely banned, but some remain.
Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring minerals resistant to corrosion and heat. It’s highly versatile, non-flammable, incredibly strong, and at one time cheap to mine and fashion into products. It was used in buildings, textiles, auto parts, floor tiles, adhesives, and construction materials starting about 4000 years ago.
Why is Asbestos Hazardous?
Asbestos is considered a health hazard, and its use is highly regulated by the federal government, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Asbestos fibers are too small to be seen with the naked eye. Intact asbestos-containing products that aren’t shedding fibers pose a much lesser threat than loose fibers in the air.
Breathing fibers into the body may cause scar-like tissue in the lungs. If the problem’s severe enough, it’s asbestosis which causes reduced lung function, which can be disabling and fatal. Changes in a cell’s DNA due to asbestos fiber exposure can, over years or decades, cause lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer of the pleura which lines the lung or the stomach), and other types of cancer.
Where Does Asbestos Come From?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that, in the right places, can be dug out of the earth from an open pit, according to the History Collective. Asbestos looks like wood in its raw form. After it’s refined and separated from dirt and other matter, asbestos is processed into fluffy fibers.
How Long Have People Used Asbestos?
Asbestos has been extracted and used for more than 4,000 years, but not on a large scale until the 19th century. Related health problems are mentioned in records going back to Roman times.
Asbestos is derived from the ancient Greek word for “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable.” Pliny (The Younger, a Roman author, attorney, and administrator) wrote about clothes made of “asbestinon” in his earliest journals. He states, “(I)t is rare and impressive and sold for the same price and the finest pearls.”
Pliny described people cleaning napkins apparently made of asbestos by setting them on fire. He also discussed a sickness in asbestos miners but didn’t go into details.
How Did Asbestos Become Widely Used?
Asbestos fibers had qualities that businesses and people sought.
The building industry wanted it because it was cheap, had good sound absorption, and high strength. It’s resistant to heat, fire, and damage by electricity and chemicals. Asbestos fibers were mixed with cement or woven into fabric or mats because of their fire and heat resistance. It was also part of fire retardant foam insulation.
The Industrial Revolution created a massive demand for asbestos because of its characteristics and uses. Machinery was steam-powered. Those owning and using them needed an efficient and effective way to control the high heat generated by coal fires and pressurized steam. Asbestos met that need by insulating turbines, steam pipes, kilns, and ovens.
Increasing demand led to the opening of more asbestos mines. The first commercial asbestos mines opened in 1879 in Quebec. More followed in Russia, Australia, and South Africa.
The next giant leap for asbestos started in World War II, and it got another boost in the post-war economic boom. Asbestos was used by all the countries involved in the war in the shipping (insulating steam pipes and boilers) and the automobile and truck industries (brake and clutch linings). After the war, asbestos was widely used in ships, buildings, refineries, power plants, and households.
What Lead to Restrictions on Asbestos?
As greater amounts of asbestos were mined and more products containing it were manufactured and used, more people were exposed and suffered health consequences. Evidence of health hazards grew in the early 20th century.
Doctors reported lung sickness and pulmonary fibrosis in former asbestos textile factories and asbestos mine workers in 1900. In 1930, a British doctor, E.R.A. Merewether, announced his findings of asbestos-related lung disease (asbestosis). That lead to some workplace safety measures in the UK.
Medical research in the 1930s showed the threats asbestos posed. A mesothelioma-like tumor was reported in 1943. Links between asbestosis and lung cancer were found in the 1940s. The first mesothelioma case was recorded in 1953. A 1955 study established asbestos exposure could cause cancer. In the 1960s, research continued to paint a bleak medical picture.
In 1970, the federal Clean Air Act was amended to include asbestos as a toxic substance. The Toxic Substance Control Act passed Congress in 1976. It enabled the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate how hazardous materials like asbestos were manufactured, used, and disposed of.
From 1972 to 1974, the federal government mandated warnings and increased regulations on asbestos and its use. A federal law passed in 1989 banned asbestos use, but that was overturned by the US Supreme Court two years later. Asbestos is still used in a limited number of products today.
How Did Asbestos Litigation Develop?
As awareness of asbestos dangers spread and new federal court rules opening up class actions (lawsuits involving one or more plaintiffs who file and pursue a case for a larger group) went into effect, legal claims by those injured by asbestos skyrocketed in the late 1960s and into the 1970s.
The first successful personal injury case brought by a plaintiff with an asbestos-related disease in the US was in 1971. A federal court in South Carolina ruled in 1978 that the asbestos industry engaged in a cover-up to hide asbestos’ health dangers.
Johns-Manville Corporation was the nation’s leading maker and seller of asbestos-containing products. It became the defendant in so many lawsuits they threatened to close the company, so it sought and received bankruptcy protection. In 1988, the company was restructured, and a trust fund was created to pay plaintiffs’ claims. The rest of the asbestos industry largely followed, driven out of business because of the harm they caused thousands of people.
Both the trust and the re-organized Johns Manville still operate today. Its approach to resolving lawsuits through a trust fund created as part of the bankruptcy process has been repeated many times by companies sued by large numbers of people they injured.
The Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust, as of early 2022, had a net value of more than $615 million. In the first quarter of this year, it paid out $13.7 million in claims and received nearly $26 million in investment income. As of 2022, almost 1.1 million claims have been brought against the trust.
How Can Satterley & Kelley Help?
If you believe you might have a current medical condition caused by asbestos exposure, seek medical attention and find out what, if anything, you suffer from. If it’s mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, consider filing a legal claim to cover medical costs, lost wages and to receive compensation for your injuries.