Mesothelioma, Asbestos and Health Dangers
Mesothelioma is a deadly type of malignant tumor that affects the lungs. It is a rare condition and almost always fatal. The disease has been tied to asbestos and those who have had prolonged exposure to the substance have increased chances of developing the disease. While the condition can be treated, it is incurable and there is a 90 percent chance that one who has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, no matter what stage it is, will not survive past five years. Asbestos has resulted in the longest mass tort case in the history of the United States and the case is still going strong. Those who are diagnosed with mesothelioma due to exposure to asbestos can expect to receive settlements or jury awards that can reach eight figures under certain circumstances, even though it cannot fully compensate for a life that will likely be cut short.
The History of Asbestos
The use of asbestos dates back over 5,000 years. It is believed that the bodies of ancient Pharaohs in Egypt were wrapped in asbestos in order to preserve them. There are references to asbestos in Greek history. In fact, the meaning of the word asbestos derives from Greek and it refers to the fact that it resists fire. There is at least some mention of the fact that in ancient times, those who worked mining asbestos became ill with a mysterious disease although there was no documented between asbestos and any specific disease. Some historians were able to hone in on the fact that asbestos caused illnesses of the lungs.
Asbestos continued to be used throughout ancient times and through the Middle Ages. The uses of the substance expanded as things needed to be preserved. However, until the 1800s, use of asbestos was not widespread as it could not be mined efficiently and there was not a sustained need for the product.
This all changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. This meant that asbestos was needed for more applications and could be used commercially. Asbestos was needed for many of the new technologies such as turbines and steam engines that required a versatile yet fireproof product. In order to keep up with the growing demand, the asbestos mining industry entered a boom period. New sources were located across the globe and production skyrocketed. Technological advances improved the speed and efficiency of the mining, allowing companies to take more asbestos from the ground.
Asbestos began to be used in the United States in the mid-1850s. The H.W. Johns Manufacturing Company pioneered the use of asbestos in many new applications. As the 19th century drew to a close, asbestos seems to be the perfect accompaniment to the diversifying U.S. economy. Asbestos usage and mining fed each other in a symbiotic relationship. The more uses for asbestos, the more that it was taken from the ground. The more asbestos that was mined, the more that manufacturers found additional uses for it.
Asbestos usage in the United States peaked in the 1960s and into the early 1970s. At its peak, total demand in the United States exceeded 800,000 tons. Worldwide, the total usage neared five million tons of the substance. For the reasons that will be described below, usage of asbestos began to decline in the United States in 1973. Worldwide, demand began to recede after 1977. Regulators began to take action curtailing the use of asbestos although it has never fully been outlawed. While asbestos is not banned in the United States, its usage has been severely reduced. As of this writing, 66 countries around the world have banned the use of asbestos.
What Is Asbestos and its Connection to Mesothelioma?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is found in the ground. It is a silicate mineral and was thought to have many characteristics that made it versatile and useful. For example, asbestos is able to be incorporated into many different things such as fabrics because its silicate nature makes it adaptable and flexible.
Asbestos is also resistant to heat and it does not corrode. For these reasons, the substance was used in a variety of different building materials. For example, asbestos was commonly found in insulation since it is fibrous yet non-flammable. It was also found in pipes because of its anti-corrosive nature. Asbestos was often thought of as a practically supernatural mineral because of its ability to be used in practically almost anything.
However, there has always been some suspicion that asbestos was connected in some way to sickness. There have been anecdotal reports throughout history of lung ailments in people who have been around asbestos. Mesothelioma was not discovered until the mid 1700s when it was realized that the lining of the lungs was susceptible to a tumor. It was not until 1943, when a German study made the first concrete linkage between asbestos and mesothelioma. Still, asbestos continued to be used for decades after that before the science gained more widespread acceptance.
After the German study, there was additional research in South Africa, Great Britain and the United States that further documented the connection between asbestos and mesothelioma. By the conclusion of the 1960s, it was generally accepted that asbestos was the main cause of mesothelioma.
What Is Mesothelioma?
- While many people think of mesothelioma as solely a disease of the lungs, the truth is that it can impact more than just the lungs.
- Mesothelioma is a tumor that is found in tissue.
- This particular tissue can be found lining the heart, lungs, stomach or other organs.
- The thin layer of tissue that mesothelioma can affect lines most of a person’s internal organs.
- When a person inhales asbestos fibers, they collect in the body in the lining of these organs.
Mesothelioma takes its name from the mesothelial cells that become inflamed by asbestos fibers. Mesothelial cells are specialized cells that are found in various parts of the body. These cells then combine the tissue that is called mesothelium. This tissue performs an important function in the body. They line the organs and the mesothelial cells produce their own sort of lubricant that allows the organs to move smoothly without friction.
These mesothelial cells grow just like any other cell in the body. This means that abnormal cell growth can cause cancer among the cells just like it can anywhere else in the body. Some of these tumors can be benign, but malignant tumors of these cells are called mesothelioma. Most of the tumors in this area will tend to be malignant.
There are four different types of mesothelioma, depending on where in the body it impacts. The different types of mesothelioma are as follows:
Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of the disease. About 75 percent of mesothelioma cases are of this variety. This type of mesothelioma occurs when mesothelioma impacts the lungs. This type of mesothelioma is caused almost solely by exposure to asbestos.
Pleural mesothelioma is caused when a person inhales asbestos fibers into their lungs. The fibers then migrate to the pleural tissue, where a tumor then forms. Pleural mesothelioma takes many years to materialize, and the cells will tend to become irritated first, although symptoms of the tumor take a while to become detectable. As with many types of mesothelioma, diagnosis only occurs at a later stage.
Eventually, pleural mesothelioma grows into a mass that affects the surrounding lung. This can lead to pleural fluid in the chest cavity. The combination of the tumor surrounding the lung and the fluid in the chest will cause the patient to suffer difficulty breathing. Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma can also include a raspy cough, coughing up blood, difficulty swallowing and shortness of breath.
Pericardial mesothelioma is when the mesothelioma grows in the tissue that surrounds the heart. This is essentially the same as heart cancer. Given the critical function that the heart performs, this is an aggressive type of cancer with a short life expectancy. Most patients will not survive six months after being diagnosed with this form of cancer.
What makes pericardial mesothelioma even more difficult is that it is exceedingly tough to diagnose. Symptoms of this type of mesothelioma resemble heart disease. Since pericardial mesothelioma is so rare, doctors will generally not look for it when diagnosing a patient. This is the one form of mesothelioma that is not always caused by asbestos exposure. Only 25 percent of the patients that are diagnosed with pericardial mesothelioma have had asbestos exposure. In many cases, the cancer is only diagnosed in an autopsy after a patient dies since it is so difficult to diagnose and exceedingly aggressive.
Pericardial mesothelioma accounts for only one to two percent of mesothelioma diagnoses in the United States every year. Given the small number of mesothelioma cases in general, this means that there are a handful of cases in any given year.
Peritoneal mesothelioma is when the disease affects the lining of the abdomen. This type of tumor is also caused by exposure to asbestos. It is not entirely clear how asbestos fibers reach the abdomen, but scientific theories generally believe that the asbestos is ingested. This type of disease is less common than pleural mesothelioma and is more survivable. Roughly half of the patients who are diagnosed with this disease survive five years after diagnosis.
Like other types of mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed at first. Since there are abdominal complications, it is confused for any one of a number of different diseases that affect the abdomen.
The last type of mesothelioma affects the testicles. Testicular mesothelioma is the rarest form of the disease. Survival rates are slightly higher, but not much better than pleural mesothelioma. The average patient will survive roughly two years after the diagnosis of the disease with treatment.
Within these four types of mesothelioma, there are three different cell types. The nature of the cell can determine how resistant the tumor is to treatment. The three different types of cells are epithelial, sarcomatoid and biphasic. The most resistant type of cell is sarcomatoid. These cells are extremely aggressive and do not respond well to treatment. Epithelial cells comprise about three-quarters of all mesothelioma cases. These cells are more responsive to treatment, although the disease remains highly dangerous regardless.
Meosthelioma is more often diagnosed in older patients than in younger ones. The average age when one is diagnosed is around 72 years of age. This is for several reasons. It is more likely that older people would have been exposed to asbestos since it is used less often these days. Those who were working in the 1960s and 1970s are much more likely to have spent extensive time breathing in the fibers or otherwise internalizing it into their bodies. In addition, it takes many years for mesothelioma to develop after the exposure to asbestos. It is not uncommon for the disease to develop forty of more years after one has been around the substance.
Asbestos and Mesothelioma Around the World
A growing number of countries are banning asbestos worldwide. The countries that have banned asbestos have seen their rates of mesothelioma drop as new cases of the disease have declined. The first countries to outlaw the use of asbestos were in Scandinavia in the early 1980s. The U.S. tried to ban asbestos not long after that but was unsuccessful due to the courts. One of the most recent countries to institute a ban was Colombia. The South American country had tried unsuccessfully over a 12-year timespan to pass a ban on the substance. After seven previous tries, the legislature was finally successful. Asbestos will be illegal in the country starting in 2021.
In Great Britain, the death rate from mesothelioma has been on the rise in recent years. In 2017, over 2,500 people died from the disease. The death rate is expected to rise slightly before generally falling after 2020. Asbestos was heavily used in Great Britain for many years and the country has a similar number of deaths to the United States even though the population is much smaller. In fact, not only does Great Britain have the highest rate of mesothelioma in Europe, but it also has the highest age-adjusted mortality rate in the world.
Mesothelioma is not limited to just the United States. Estimates of the number of deaths each year from the disease worldwide range from 38,000 to 43,000. Asbestos is also used heavily in China, but there are no ready statistics about the rate of mesothelioma in the country. However, the rate is believed to be relatively low for the number of tons that are used in the country each year.
Asbestos Litigation History
Asbestos has been known as the largest mass tort in American history. Legal liability from exposure to asbestos has completely bankrupted many companies while many other businesses have had to pay out multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements to those who were sickened by the substance.
Asbestos litigation has been around for nearly a century, even before mesothelioma was conclusively tied to asbestos exposure. The first asbestos litigation was brought in the United States in the 1920s. The same attorney filed 15 different asbestos lawsuits, but early victims of asbestos related illnesses were not able to obtain compensation for their injuries.
Many of the dangers of asbestos remained hidden from the public for decades. As a result, there were not many lawsuits filed with regard to mesothelioma from asbestos. However, changes to federal class action lawsuit rule allowed for an increase in the number of lawsuits at the end of the 1960s.
Much of the early litigation was against the miners and manufacturers of asbestos. For example Johns Manville Corporation was closely associated with asbestos in the United States as one of the largest companies that did an extensive asbestos-based business. Johns Manville was the defendant in thousands of asbestos claims from the 1960s through the 1980s. The company was allegedly aware of the connection between asbestos and mesothelioma but suppressed the report in order to keep using the dangerous product. Eventually, the company was able to seek bankruptcy protection as federal bankruptcy rules were changed to allow those with significant asbestos liability to preemptively file for bankruptcy.
One of the major early asbestos cases that set the tone for later litigation was the case of Borel v. Fireboard Paper Products Corporation. In this case, the jury issued a landmark decision that served as a precedent for decades. The plaintiff in this case was a man by the name of Clarence Borel. He had worked for decades at shipyards and refineries as an insulator. In this job, he was exposed to asbestos that was prominently contained in the insulation with which he worked every day.
The Borel case was an example of a successful use of product liability laws to target the companies that made the products that contained asbestos. The lawsuit argued that asbestos manufacturers should be strictly liable for the harm that their products caused. In other words, if someone was sickened by a product containing asbestos, it would be the end of the case and the maker would be responsible with no further questions asked. The court established the precedent of strict liability for asbestos manufacturers although the family of the plaintiff did not receive much in the way of compensation.
With the Borel case decided, the floodgates for asbestos lawsuits were opened as families sought justice and compensation for mesothelioma and other asbestos related illnesses. By the end of the twentieth century, approximately 600,000 asbestos claims had been filed. These lawsuits were brought against a total of roughly 6,000 defendants. At that point, over $50 billion had been spent to settle claims and pay jury verdicts.
Almost five decades later, asbestos and mesothelioma cases are still being filed today as new cases of the disease are still being diagnosed even after the use of asbestos has been reduced. The costs of asbestos litigation now are into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Even the companies who have gone bankrupt as a result of asbestos litigation were not able to escape their liability. As part of their bankruptcy, these companies were required to set aside trust funds to pay out asbestos claims. Decades later, these trust funds are still paying claimants for their injuries from asbestos, and this includes mesothelioma claims.