Why The Risk of Mesothelioma is Still a Real Danger for Many Workers

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When I talk with people about my experience as an asbestos litigation attorney the one response I get more than any other is, so is asbestos litigation actually still around?   Well, yes.  Yes, it is.  Unfortunately, the American Cancer Society reports that there are still between 2000 and 3000 new diagnoses of mesothelioma each year in the United States.  As well as mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer and non-malignant diseases such as asbestosis make up the bulk of asbestos litigation practiced today.

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that forms in the cells of the protective lining, called the mesothelium, covering many of the body’s internal organs including the lungs, like syran wrap.   Exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma and it has no cure.  Patients who are diagnosed with mesothelioma often do not survive a year beyond the diagnosis.   Asbestos has killed far more people than any other environmental hazard in history.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and World Health Organization (WHO) have declared asbestos a proven human carcinogen for which there is no safe level of exposure.  Any contact with asbestos carries with it some level of risk for disease.  In fact mesothelioma can be caused by relatively small exposures to asbestos or even secondary exposure, where asbestos fibers are brought home by a worker to his family.

But if asbestos fiber has been removed from virtually all consumer products and building materials in the United States since the mid to late 70’s how is asbestos litigation still around?

The answer has everything to do with the decades-long latency period of asbestos-related diseases including mesothelioma.  It typically takes years for asbestos diseases to manifest and progress to the point where the patient feels the ill effects.  It also takes many years before asbestos diseases can be detected with modern medical diagnostic technologies.  Most patients who suffer today from an asbestos related disease were exposed to asbestos fiber 20, 30 or 40 years ago in an industrial job.

Medical science does not know precisely why the latency period related to asbestos diseases is so long.  Some theorize that the long latency period is related to the physiological processes inside the body attempting to expel the foreign asbestos fibers.  The body’s attempt to eradicate intruding fibers slows the rate at which fibers ultimately reach cells of the mesothelium.   Another contributing factor to the remarkably long latency may be the slower rate of cell division related to mesothelial cells in the early stages of uncontrolled cell division.

Who’s at risk?

Most victims suffering with asbestos disease today, including mesothelioma, were exposed to the dangerous fibers while working years ago in various industrial workplaces.  They worked in shipyards as boilermakers, insulators, shipbuilders, and pipefitters.  They worked in the construction industry as dry-wallers, carpenters, and HVAC installers.  They were brake mechanics, paper mill laborers, furnace repairmen, floor tile installers and electricians, to name a few.  They were also the family members of these workers.

Workers involved today in the demolition of old buildings that were built with asbestos products, and during a certain period virtually all of them were, are still at a high risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fiber.  For instance, more than 1,000 tons of asbestos are thought to have been released into the air during the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11.  The inhalation of a mixture of asbestos and other toxins is thought to be linked to the unusually high death rate of emergency service workers from cancer since the disaster.

How does asbestos cause disease?

Of the different kinds of asbestos related disease, mesothelioma is considered the most serious and severe because it is invariably fatal and has the shortest life expectancy.  Mesothelioma occurs when asbestos fibers, either inhaled or swallowed, penetrate the surface of the mesothelium.  When the resilient but slender transparent fibers penetrate the cells the result is a disruption of normal cell activity, especially mitosis possibly caused by the fibers tangling destructively with comparably sized chromosomes.  This can lead to irregular cell division that can progress into a malignant tumor within the mesothelium which ultimately invades the tissue and organs around it.

The very qualities of this miracle mineral that make it so attractive as an industrial product are what make it so deadly inside a human body.  Asbestos fiber is acid resistant, heat resistant, incredibly resilient and remarkably strong.  Once introduced (most commonly) into the pulmonary or gastrointestinal system, the microscopic needles move through tissue over time and stubbornly resist the body’s efforts to break them down and expel them.

Not everyone exposed to asbestos fiber will develop an asbestos-related disease.  While mesothelioma can be caused by limited exposures, it is a rare form of cancer and, statistically, even someone with significant exposure will not get the disease.  Sometimes I meet a person who has concerns about an isolated or very limited exposure to asbestos.  While there is always some risk of mesothelioma for anyone who came into contact with asbestos fiber, the greater the exposure in terms of intensity and frequency, the greater the risk of developing the fatal cancer.

Asbestos litigation is still around because workers who were exposed to asbestos products years ago in this country are still being diagnosed with asbestos related diseases today.  If you or a loved one has a history of asbestos exposure it is extremely important to inform your doctor that you’ve been exposed to asbestos because symptoms of asbestos disease, including mesothelioma, often resemble those of less serious illnesses.  Asbestos diseases have proven difficult to diagnose even by experienced doctors.  If you are diagnosed with an asbestos related disease it is critical that you contact an experienced asbestos litigation attorney as soon as possible to preserve your legal rights.

Patrick Angel is a Portland Personal Injury Attorney representing injured Oregonians who have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace.  Patrick is the founder of Angel Law PC and can be reached at (503) 241-4708 or patrick@angellawpc.com

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