Asbestos used to be considered a miracle mineral. It’s tough, flexible and heat- and fire-resistant. It can be—and was—manufactured into all kinds of products.
As a result, for many decades, asbestos was everywhere. Manufacturers used it in everything from floor and ceiling tiles to insulation, brake pads, oven mitts, hairdryers, electric blankets, fireproofing spray and fake fireplace logs.
The qualities that made asbestos valuable also made it deadly
Despite its former reputation as a “miracle mineral,” asbestos is actually more than one mineral. The term refers to the collection of six different, closely related, fibrous minerals. Geologists further divide these into two groups: serpentines and amphiboles.
The serpentines group contains only one type of asbestos: chrysotile. The other five types of asbestos are all amphiboles. However, they all share several common properties. As noted in a geological survey from the U.S. Department of the Interior, asbestiform fibers:
- Are found as bundles of fibers that can easily be split apart
- Share high tensile strength
- Tend to be long and thin
- Are flexible enough that they can be spun or woven
- Are silicates, meaning (among other things) that they resist biodegradation
In short, asbestos can easily break down into tiny fibers. Those fibers can then get into your body. Once they make their way into your body, they do not break down. Instead, they reside there indefinitely, frequently causing local, long-term inflammation.
Asbestos exposure can lead to mesothelioma and other cancers
Asbestos exposure is problematic because asbestos is a carcinogen. Asbestos exposure can lead to lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that forms in the protective linings around organs like the lungs, heart and intestines.
These cancers often take many years or decades to develop, but there is no level of asbestos exposure known to be safe. Once asbestos fibers get into your body, they remain there. Their presence can then trigger a vicious cycle of inflammation and cell death that encourages cellular mutations and tumor growth.
Common symptoms often appear decades later
The Mayo Clinic says that it frequently takes 10 to 40 years for the common symptoms of asbestos exposure to develop. These symptoms include:
- Tightness of the chest
- Difficulty breathing
- Persistent, dry coughing
- Crackling sounds in your lungs
- Unusually wide and round fingernails and toenails
If you experience any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor for a medical examination. You should also let your doctor know if you worked somewhere where asbestos exposure was likely.
Manufacturers knowingly exposed people to the carcinogen
Scientists and doctors began to recognize the connection between asbestos and cancer as early as 1924. By the 1940s, researchers better understood the risks associated with asbestos. By the 1970s, the scientific evidence was overwhelming. Government agencies like the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) began to limit asbestos use.
Even though they knew the risks, manufacturers continued to use asbestos. Asbestos use didn’t drop significantly until manufacturers faced massive class-action lawsuits. These lawsuits forced many companies to file for bankruptcy. As part of their bankruptcy cases, many of these companies had to create trust funds to help their victims.
Victims may be eligible for compensation
Asbestos exposure can lead to more than serious health problems. The treatments for asbestos-related diseases are often costly. But because most asbestos exposure leads back to manufacturers’ negligent and harmful actions, victims often have a right to compensation.
Some victims and their families may file lawsuits to pursue compensation. However, victims do not always need to file lawsuits. Many can pursue a variety of actions, including filing for compensation from one or more of the asbestos trust funds. Victims can learn more about their options by contacting an attorney familiar with asbestos-related claims.