Asbestos, a mineral now known to cause cancer, was widely used from 1940 to the mid-1970s in a variety of industries. Manufacturing and construction interests, in particular, valued the substance chiefly as an insulation material because asbestos does not conduct electricity, is not responsive to heat and is made up of strong yet flexible fibers. As a result, many commonly used industrial, commercial and household products of the past 60 years have included asbestos.
The use of asbestos has declined dramatically since the 1970s largely because of regulatory action and public uproar over illnesses including cancer linked to the inhalation of the fiber. Yet, according to the American Lung Association, thousands of commonly used products may still contain asbestos.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that 27 million Americans received considerable exposure to asbestos between 1940 and 1980.
Indeed, the National Cancer Institute states that asbestos has been so commonly used that virtually all Americans have been exposed to the substance at some point — through the air, food, dental materials, consumer products and much more.
Below are answers from Kelley & Ferraro to some frequently asked questions about asbestos:
What diseases are related to exposure to asbestos-containing products?
There are two main categories of asbestos-related diseases: cancerous and noncancerous.
What is the noncancer asbestos-related disease called?
The noncancer disease is asbestosis, which is a scarring of the lungs. It is progressive and painful. It can induce severe coughing and shortness of breath. In its advanced stage, this irreversible asbestos-related disease also can cause clubbing of the fingers.
What forms of cancer can be caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos-containing products?
The main forms of cancer are lung cancer, colon cancer, esophageal cancer and larynx cancer. The most serious is mesothelioma.
Are all these rapidly fatal?
No. A victim of a noncancer asbestos-related disease can live a long life depending upon the severity of the disease. Even some forms of cancer can be treated. Malignant mesothelioma, however, is always fatal.
Can anyone contract an asbestos-related disease?
Yes, but the vast majority of victims are men and women who were subjected to prolonged exposure to asbestos-containing products on the job in the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s.
Many Kelley & Ferraro clients were exposed to asbestos insulation that was sawed, mixed, sprayed or applied. These workers normally were NOT warned about the dangers.
They readily breathed in asbestos dust. In each case, the Kelley & Ferraro lawyer handling the litigation showed that the employer did not give masks or provide adequate ventilation.
What kinds of workers worked with or near asbestos-containing products and could have come down with an asbestos-related disease?
- Asbestos workers who installed asbestos-containing insulation
- Auto workers who installed brakes and clutches
- Auto mechanics who worked with brakes and clutches
- Steel workers and boilermakers who built and serviced large boilers with asbestos insulation
- Pipefitters who installed boilers with asbestos pipe coverings
- Plumbers, electricians, and other building trades and maintenance workers who worked on or around asbestos-insulated pipes
- Shipyard workers and seamen who worked on ship boilers
Can family members of workers exposed to asbestos-containing products come down with an asbestos-related disease?
Medical evidence indicates that family members can be exposed to asbestos through clothing. Asbestos is a light fiber that can dislodge easily from clothing. Because it is so light, it can be carried through the air. Family members of workers who handled asbestos can be directly at risk if they inhale these fibers. Because these fibers can be invisible to the naked eye, one may not even be aware of asbestos exposure.
How long before the onset of an asbestos-related illness since being exposed to an asbestos-containing product?
The lag time between exposure to asbestos and the onset of an asbestos-related illness can be as much as 30 years or more. The National Cancer Institute has reported that some shipyard workers who were exposed to substantial amounts of asbestos for only a month have gone on to develop asbestos-related illnesses.
Does everyone who has been exposed to asbestos fall ill from it?
No. The National Cancer Institute says that some workers never experience any ill effects. A lot depends on whether one worked with breathable asbestos or with asbestos that was bonded to pipes or other materials. Breathable asbestos is a very light substance, easily carried through the air and, therefore, easily inhaled. Asbestos that bonds into strong materials generally does not pose a risk, the National Cancer Institute states, as long as the material is not disturbed or damaged.
According to the National Cancer Institute, once asbestos fibers are inhaled, they stay in the body for an indefinite period of time.
What if someone seriously suspects that asbestos is being handled or removed in an improper manner at a local site? Whom should the person contact?
If you visit EPA Regional Asbestos Information, you will find a map of the United States. Check which region your state is in and then go below the map for the name of your U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contact.