Asbestos Exposure: What You Need to Know

February 23, 2022

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was used in various building materials and other products for decades because of its durability and fire-resistant properties. Asbestos is found in rocks and soil. Due to its flexibility and resistance to heat, chemicals, and electricity, it has been used for years to make construction materials, car parts, and even textiles.

Asbestos can produce dust that, when inhaled, becomes deposited into the lungs because of its durable, fibrous nature—causing or contributing to the development of severe, life-threatening illnesses, including asbestosis and mesothelioma. However, diseases like these generally require long-term and repeated exposure to cause illness, so one-time exposure is rarely a concern.

Where Can Asbestos Be Found?

Occupations and industries that have traditionally seen workers exposed to a significant level of asbestos are:

  • Construction, renovation, and demolition of commercial and residential buildings
  • Ship-building
  • Paper mills
  • Mining
  • Heating and cooling equipment repair
  • Automotive repair
  • Manufacture of products containing asbestos
  • Roofing
  • Janitorial jobs in buildings that contain disintegrating asbestos

These dangerous asbestos fibers are most commonly found in products such as:

  • Insulation in walls and attics
  • Vinyl tiles used for floors
  • Shingles
  • Siding on houses
  • Blankets that protect hot water pipes
  • Fabrics that resist heat (curtains, blankets, and doors)
  • Car brakes

These lists are not exhaustive. So, if you do not see the occupation or product in which you were exposed to asbestos, it does not mean that you were not exposed to asbestos.

Anyone whose work brings them in contact with asbestos can inhale fibers that are in the air; this is called occupational exposure. Workers’ families may also inhale asbestos fibers that are released by clothes that have been in contact with asbestos-containing materials; this is called para-occupational exposure. Others that live or work near asbestos-related operations may inhale asbestos fibers that have been released into the air by such operation; this is called neighborhood exposure.

The quantity of asbestos in which someone is exposed can vary according to:

  • The duration of exposure
  • The accumulation of fibers in the air
  • The person’s breathing rate
  • Any protective devices the person may be wearing
  • Weather conditions

Even though it is known that the risk to workers increases with substantial exposure and longer exposure time, examiners have found asbestos-related diseases in people who only had brief exposure. It is common for workers who develop asbestos-related diseases to not show signs of illness for an extended amount of time after their first exposure. It can take between 10 to 40 years for symptoms of an asbestos-related illness to appear. Because of this lapse of time issue, most states allow people to file lawsuits within a certain amount of time after the illness or condition was discovered.

How Does Asbestos Exposure Happen?

Asbestos exposure takes place when microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne. This toxic mineral dust remains in the air for hours, putting anyone nearby in danger of inhaling or ingesting it. In an ideal environment with few disruptions, it may take anywhere from 48 to 72 hours for asbestos fibers to settle. However, if the dust is disrupted, it can quickly become airborne again because of its density.

Most people are exposed through their profession. Professions in manual labor and skilled trades present a higher risk of asbestos exposure. U.S. Veterans were once amongst the most vulnerable because of the military’s past reliance on asbestos products, especially on Navy ships.

Commercial and home renovation are also dangerous because numerous older buildings have asbestos-containing materials. When common asbestos products found in homes start to disintegrate or are sanded, cut, drilled, or disturbed in any other way, microscopic fibers enter the air.

Although environmental and secondary exposure is not as common, it still happens regularly. Of course, almost everyone will inhale some quantity of asbestos in their lifetime, but trace amounts rarely cause health issues.

Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure

When microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled and swallowed, they can become trapped inside the body’s digestive or respiratory tract. Although the body can get rid of some of these asbestos fibers, many fibers get stuck permanently.

There is no amount of asbestos exposure that is safe; however, most problems only arise after years of exposure to the cancer-causing agent. When asbestos fibers collect in human tissue through recurrent exposure, they cause inflammation and DNA damage. Over time, this damage causes cellular changes that can lead to cancer and other diseases. And the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure multiplies the hazard, creating an even greater health risk.

Cancers Caused by Asbestos Exposure:

  • Mesothelioma: A rare and incurable cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs or abdomen
  • Lung Cancer: Cancer that begins in the lungs and usually occurs in people who smoke; however, asbestos-related lung cancer makes up approximately 4 percent of all lung cancer cases.
  • Laryngeal Cancer: Disease in which cancerous cells form in the tissues of the larynx. In 2006, the National Institutes of Health confirmed that asbestos causes laryngeal cancer.
  • Ovarian Cancer: type of cancer that begins in female organs that produce eggs. In 2012, The International Agency for Research on Cancer confirmed that asbestos causes ovarian cancer.

Noncancerous Conditions Caused by Asbestos:

  • Asbestosis: Inflammation and scarring of lung tissue, which inhibits the lungs from expanding and relaxing normally
  • Pleural plaques: Areas of fibrous thickening of the lining around the lungs—the most common sign of asbestos exposure
  • Pleural Effusion: Small areas of thickened tissue in the lung lining or pleura that causes difficulty breathing
  • Diffuse Pleural Thickening: Substantial scarring that thickens the pleural lining of the lungs that causes chest pain and breathlessness
  • Pleurisy: Severe inflammation of the pleural lining, also known as the pleuritic pain
  • Atelectasis: The complete or partial collapse of the entire lung or area of the lung that occurs when the tiny air sacs (alveoli) within in the lung become deflated or possibly filled with alveolar fluid

Mesothelioma, the most common result of asbestos exposure, is a tumor caused by inhaling asbestos fibers, usually forming in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, heart, or other organs. These fibers eventually wedge in the mesothelium, a protective membrane that covers these organs, giving the body a difficult time ridding the toxic fibers. Many different types of mesothelioma can result depending on where the fibers traveled in the body. The most common symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Cough (dry and nagging)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite

Can I Avoid Being Exposed?

Asbestos is so common that everyone has been around it at some point in their life. It’s in water, soil, and the air. But when someone is exposed at such a low level, it is unlikely to make someone sick.

Asbestos penetrates the air as materials that contain it are destroyed. So, for example, when buildings are demolished, or homes are remodeled, asbestos can fill the air. Repairs and home maintenance can also release these harmful fibers. So, individuals have less to be concerned about if they are around asbestos products that have not been damaged in any way.

Since 1970, the U.S. government has controlled the use of asbestos. For example, it has not been mined or processed in this country for quite some time; however, it is still used in certain items like cement pipes, clothes, and brake pads. But the EPA has banned it in paper, flooring felt, artificial fireplace embers, and other products. The chances of getting related diseases are low unless someone works directly with asbestos on a daily basis.

In events like 9/11, where hundreds of tons of asbestos got into the air, it is likely that rescue workers, nearby residents, and those who helped with cleanup efforts may have inhaled it. However, the long-term effects of this exposure will not be known for years.

Asbestos Exposure Regulations

Because of the health concerns that asbestos produces, like mesothelioma and asbestosis, any new use of asbestos was temporarily banned in the United States in July 1989. In that year, the EPA published Asbestos: Manufacture, Importation, Processing, and Distribution in Commerce Prohibitions, to eventually ban roughly 94 percent of asbestos being used in the U.S. However, that rule was later abandoned after a challenge in the federal court, consequently overthrowing the 1989 ban. In 1990, the EPA prohibited the use of spray-on materials containing more than 1 percent of asbestos in structures, buildings, and other applications.

Even with government regulation, asbestos-related lawsuits have been consistently filed since the 1960s, and continue to be filed regularly today. However, regardless of its legality of many applications involving asbestos, following the overthrowing of the 1989 ban, many manufacturers have largely avoided using it to limit their legal exposure.

Employees’ Rights to Protection From Asbestos Exposure

If an individual works with or around significant amounts of asbestos as part of their jobs, or if an individual is worried about asbestos exposure in the workplace, it is essential to consult a supervisor or union about any health risks as well as the steps that are being taken to reduce those risks.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other workplace safety agencies are supposed to monitor and manage asbestos exposure on the job carefully—they even set legal exposure limits for different types of industries. If an occupation involves exposure to significant amounts of asbestos, the employer is legally required to take specific steps that protect employees from any health risks involving asbestos.

Depending on the industry, and the specifics of a job, an employee may be legally entitled to receive, and the employer may be legally obligated to provide, the following kinds of on-the-job protections from asbestos exposure:

  • Properly ventilated workspaces
  • Training of employees who will be working with and around asbestos
  • Monitoring of employees for asbestos exposure levels (such as daily monitoring for workers involved in the removal of asbestos-containing materials
  • Warning signs and instructions in areas where asbestos-related work is performed
  • Protective clothing (such as coveralls, gloves, foot coverings, face shields, and goggles)
  • Showers and other post-exposure precautions
  • Medical examinations for specific workers who are exposed to excessive amounts of asbestos

If you believe that your work conditions are unsafe or your employer is not appropriately protecting you from asbestos, file an anonymous complaint with OSHA.

Compensation for Asbestos Exposure Injuries

The effects of toxic asbestos exposure are typically permanent and irrevocable. Even though the law seeks to put an injured person in their position before the injury, this is usually not possible. However, economic compensation thought to be equal to the victim’s damage is awarded. A claimant who can prove that they were exposed to asbestos may be able to recover for both the economic and non-economic consequences of said exposure, including but not limited to:

  • The cost of past and future medical care
  • The cost of necessary rehabilitation
  • Lost past and future earnings
  • Lost earning capacity
  • Lost enjoyment of life
  • Emotional distress
  • Past and future pain and suffering

Punitive damages may also be awarded to claimants. Punitive damages are intended not to compensate victims for their losses but to punish the defendant’s wrongful conduct. Although these damages are rare, they still are an option to some. The amount of punitive damages awarded is likely based on the defendant’s wealth and the extent of the wrongful conduct. And some states require that a portion of the punitive damages awards be paid to the state.

Why the Cochran Firm

The attorneys at The Cochran Firm are among the nation’s most successful and tenacious attorneys. When navigating through the legal process, you deserve to have an experienced attorney by your side. The Cochran Firm attorneys know how to fight for you.

Here at The Cochran Firm, our experienced attorneys are ready to help mesothelioma victims due to asbestos exposure. Our attorneys work closely with each of our clients using pooled resources and their access to legal expertise to ensure the most effective legal representation available is provided.

If you are concerned about potential asbestos exposure, or if you or a loved one has suffered from mesothelioma due to the asbestos exposure, please contact The Cochran Firm of the Mid-South today for a free, no-obligation initial consultation. We serve clients throughout the United States.

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