Asbestos is a very effective insulator, even at very high temperature. Its excellent insulating qualities and ready availability resulted in its wide use in many industrial settings. In order to maximize their profits, many asbestos producers minimized and concealed the significant dangers from exposure to asbestos particles.
During the decades when asbestos was widely used, many workers were exposed to asbestos particles and dust while working at shipyards, steel and power plants, construction jobs or other work sites. Some would leave the work site covered with asbestos dust, resulting in the possible contamination of their homes and exposure of their spouses and children to asbestos particles.
Asbestos use was curtailed in the late 1970's, and massive clean-up efforts were commenced. By the time all of the hazards of asbestos exposure were known to the public, legions of workers were destined to develop asbestos-related disease based upon their prior exposure. Diseases resulting from explsure include asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other cancers.
It was once thought that asbestos litigation had peaked, but it is now understood that asbestos disease may not manifest itself for thirty or more years after exposure. As a consequence, signficant numbers of new cases continue to be filed. Many companies have sought bankruptcy protection to minimize their exposure to asbestos injury claims.
Asbestosis is a chronic, progressive lung disease (pneumoconiosis) caused by inhalation of asbestos particles over a prolonged period of time. Asbestosis is associated with interstitial fibrosis of the lung, ranging from minor scarring in the basal areas to extensive scarring throughout the lungs, which decreases the efficiency of the lungs and makes it harder to breathe. It is most commonly diagnosed in workers from the cement, textile, and insulating industries.
The mesothelial tissue of the lungs includes the pleura (the tissue that envelopes the lungs and lines the chest cavity), the peritoneum (the tissue which lines the abdomen), and the pericardium (the tissue that surrounds the heart). Mesothelioma is a tumor of mesothelial tissue, most commonly malignant in nature.
Mesothelioma is exceptionally rare except in cases of asbestos exposure, which is associated with approximately 70% to 80% of diagnoses. Approximately 75% of mesothelioma tumors begin in the chest cavity, and are thus called "plerual mesothelioma". About 15% of mesothelioma tumors begin in the abdomen, and are thus called "peritoneal mesothelioma". It is rare for a mesothelioma to begin in the pericardium.
Types of mesothelioma include:
The first symptoms of mesothelioma typically include cough and chest pain, which may include difficulty breathing associated with "pleural effusion" (accumulation of fluid between the pleura and the chest cavity). As these symptoms may result from a variety of medical conditions, there may be a delay in diagnosis typically in the range of three to six months.
Despite improved treatment, mesothelioma usually results in death within six to eighteen months of the date of diagnosis. Less than ten percent of mesothelioma patients survive for five years or longer. It is thus very important for people who have been exposed to asbestos to monitor themselves for possible symptoms of mesothelioma. With early diagnosis and effective treatment, a patient may survive for two or three years, with some patients surviving as long as five to ten years.
Some asbestos claims are made against an employer through the workers' compensation system, as a work-related injury.
In addition to workers' compensation claims, it is often possible to seek relief against the manufacturers of abestos and asbestos products for injury caused by exposure to those products. It is now well-documented that many asbestos producers and manufacturers intentionally withheld information about the serious injuries that could result from asbestos exposure, some of which dates back to the 1940's, and that documentation often facilitates product liability claims.
The typical duration of a mesothelioma case is approximately one year.