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How competing scientific theories may impact your recovery

When you were in school, did you ever write a report in a certain way because you knew that was the way your teacher liked it? Most of us have. We do this because we want a good outcome.

What does this have to do with recovering from mesothelioma? The answer is, "More than you might hope." Because the truth is that you want the courts and the law to address your disease and recovery based on sound science, but there are plenty of people who interpret science in different ways, depending on whom they perceive as their audience.

A debate over the nature of asbestos may affect ongoing litigation

One of the scientific discussions most likely to affect mesothelioma victims has to do with the nature of asbestos. Several months ago, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) working group suggested an update to the definition of asbestos.

As you may know, asbestos isn't a single mineral, but a category of several related minerals. The risks that these different mineral fibers present may vary. Some are more likely to cause cancer than others. But since they're all considered "asbestos," they're all carefully controlled, and companies need to be careful to keep them out of their products:

  • Chrysotile
  • Amosite
  • Crocidolite
  • Asbestiform tremolite
  • Asbestiform anthophyllite
  • Asbestiform actinolite

However, the issue that the EPA group noted was that these minerals are defined at one scale but may affect the human body based on how they look and act on a completely different scale. Accordingly, the EPA working group wanted to broaden its definition of "asbestos" beyond the six types of minerals. They wanted to study additional minerals and elongate mineral particles (EMPs) that may look like asbestos at the microscopic level. They say these minerals may act like asbestos, cause cancer like asbestos and be tracked and, possibly, controlled like asbestos.

Naturally, this has manufacturers up in arms, especially those who use talc in their products and whose legal defense has often argued that there is no chrysotile asbestos in their talc. Except tests have frequently found other forms of asbestos and EMPs.

Should manufacturers be allowed to steer the science?

To most, the idea of sifting through competing scientific arguments is not compelling. Most laypeople would prefer not to investigate the finer points of mineralogy to learn if different fibers should or should not be considered asbestos. However, these are questions that impact tens of thousands of people. They determine whether manufacturers should be held accountable for their actions or if they can get away on the fine print. "We didn't cause the cancer because we don't have asbestos in our product. It's only a different fiber that's a lot like asbestos."

What the EPA working group has proposed is to continue researching the effects of these fibers. We know they appear in various products. The EPA wants to understand them. The manufacturers want us to look the other way.

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