Asbestos Continues to Wreak Havoc on Generations of Workers

Michael GrossmanFebruary 28, 2018 7 minutes

Society has a complicated history with technological progress. It seems like many major developments in the industrial and consumer sectors were found to be pretty awful ideas after a generation or so of use. Just think about it: From the 1930's through the 50's, cigarettes were endorsed by doctors for the pep that a jolt of nicotine would put in a smoker's step. Only later was it shown that smoking causes a variety of terrible side effects (and yet mysteriously, trillions of cigarettes are still sold worldwide every year). In the early 20th century the public enjoyed the novelty of recently-discovered radium. Applying a dash of it to their watch faces made them glow in the dark, which was both functional and fascinating. Only later was it determined that the radioactive substance destroyed the poor "radium girls" whose job it was to paint the watches.

All I'm really saying is that many inventions and developments seem like really great ideas until their darker side reveals itself. An example of this that has reared its ugly head for millennia is asbestos. Still found in many municipal and residential buildings, this fibrous element is well-known to cause serious damage to lung tissue. Somehow, though, efforts to discover and remove it for public health seem never-ending.

Asbestos: History and Applications

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring substance that in its found form resembles long fibrous crystals. It was mined and used for various purposes, from candle wicks to tablecloths to ceramics, for thousands of years. By the middle of the 19th century, large-scale mining operations pulled thousands of tons of the material from the earth for industrial purposes--primarily in machinery and building construction. It was plentiful and cheap and its heat-resistant properties were good enough for ancient cultures, so why not the gadgets and cities of modern man? This era of automation and mechanization thought it had stumbled on a near-perfect material for its expansion.

white asbestos fibers on a taupe piece of cloth
Long crystalline asbestos fibers, used in many industries for decades or longer.

That confidence lasted roughly 40 years, give or take a decade. Even in the ancient world, keen observers noticed that laborers who regularly made use of asbestos fibers (weavers, potters) seemed to develop serious respiratory problems at a rate much greater than others. Called a "disease of slaves," this lung disorder was most likely due to inhalation of the fibers, which are known to disrupt lung function and extensively damage the organs themselves.

As industrialization made greater and greater use of asbestos, so too did the number of related lung damages increase. By the 1920's and 30's, a great deal of public attention was drawn to the risks of long-term exposure to asbestos. In the 40's U.S. legislation was passed requiring better ventilation in places that used the fibers, and the debilitating medical conditions asbestosis and mesothelioma were recognized in association with exposure to asbestos. Despite this medical knowledge, thousands of tons of the material continued to be used in domestic factories for ship construction during World War II.

In the late 20th century asbestos use was heavily reduced before finally being banned in most countries. Even with no further applications it was present in many consumer products and buildings of all types, continuing to damage the lungs of anyone who breathed in even trace amounts of it over a long period of time.

What Could Asbestos Do to Me?

Any amount of asbestos exposure is considered dangerous. It can be a skin and eye irritant to some degree, but the majority of its grimmest effects stem from inhaling its fibers. The majority of people who fall ill from such inhalation have been regularly exposed to asbestos a job where they worked directly with the material. Thousands of years' worth of workers, both paid and indentured, learned this the hard way.

Diseases commonly associated with asbestos contact include:

  • Asbestos warts: The sharp crystalline fibers of asbestos can sometimes lodge in the skin. Over time they become overgrown, causing callused wart-like growths.
  • Pleural plaques or thickening: A fibrous or calcified pleural area (part of two thin layers of tissue that cushion and protect the lungs inside the ribcage) can sometimes occur after asbestos exposure.
  • Asbestosis: One of the most common conditions related to asbestos, this disorder is characterized by scarring and long-term inflammation of the lungs. A form of pulmonary fibrosis, it can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, and chronic coughing. It can further develop into lung cancer or mesothelioma (defined below).
  • Mesothelioma: This condition is a form of cancer that affects the mesothelium, a layer of tissue that covers many internal organs. The portion of the mesothelium most often stricken by cancer is that which surrounds the lungs. Asbestos exposure isn't the only possible cause of mesothelioma, but some studies suggest it is responsible for up to 80% of reported cases.

This is an incomplete list, but I'm going to sum up the rest by simply saying that asbestos fibers are deeply, dangerously unfriendly to lung tissue.

The Stuff is Still Everywhere.

Given what it's capable of doing, it's a little hard to believe asbestos is still getting found all over the U.S. in public and private buildings. A quick Google search for "asbestos in Dallas TX" yielded page after page of firms eager to test for, detect, and/or remove asbestos from premises in the city; evidently there is still enough overall need to keep a dozen or more firms afloat. It's in walls, concrete mixtures, and wiring insulation in buildings that range back decades, and removing/replacing it isn't simple work.

Smaller towns and rural areas are often hit even worse by dangerous legacy building materials. Nobody may be sick from radium-laced watches anymore, but it's not impossible to come across a settlement where virtually every building has stood fast since 1930 or so. Businesses in these "historic downtown So-and-So" areas may change hands and swap the wares they sell, but many of them cannot afford to do anything about known asbestos issues so they proceed until an inspection discovers its presence or someone is injured.

For instance, the historic Bastrop County Jail building was recently evacuated when asbestos was discovered in the plaster covering its inside walls. News sources indicate that county employees were unaware of the hazardous material in the building. Quite possibly since its first major renovations in 1924, the building has placed them employees in danger alongside the grand juries that convened on the premises.

Interviewed court officials pleaded ignorance of the asbestos's presence when questioned by reporters. In fairness, that's a pretty common problem: Many people have no idea they're surrounded by it every day, especially in older buildings. As things stand, the owners of those buildings tend to be reactive rather than proactive about removing the toxic substance. To put that another way, they remove it if it's accidentally found but don't go looking for it. They usually cite the time and money they'd have to sink into the search and subsequent repairs, but that attitude doesn't exactly convey a profound concern for their employees' health.

To be fair, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has to this day issued no specific bans on the use of asbestos. Its applications have been tightly limited by measures that mention it as a hazard (The Clean Air Act of 1970, the Toxic Substances Control Act), and it is subject to federal, state, and local regulations, but it's not out-and-out prohibited. When governments don't take specific action to find the asbestos in their old buildings, they're not necessarily breaking any laws--just acting in poor taste.

What Can I Do If I'm Hurt by Asbestos?

Asbestos as a health risk, including conclusive scientific research about it, has been on the public radar for over a century. Because of this, injury litigation related to asbestosis and mesothelioma have been in the courts for almost as long. Aware that asbestos created a serious danger for their workers, industrial employers didn't exactly scramble to discontinue its use. Instead, they hunkered down and prepared to bitterly contest every claimant's tale; to date, over 8,000 defendants have seen related claims from over 700,000 plaintiffs.

In many cases, workers' compensation programs address employees' injuries or deaths from asbestos. Workers' comp has its share of problems, but it does guarantee a certain amount of income in the event of getting hurt on the job. More to the employers' benefit, they can generally keep these compensation claims and payouts under wraps, without publicly disclosing that anything is wrong.

Texas is different than most states in that employers can opt out of workers' compensation insurance. Employers can roll the dice and bet that nobody will be hurt, and in making that bet they can save a little money--until, of course, a falling ceiling tile knocks out an office employee and they sue. Without workers' compensation as a shield, those injured parties must seek recourse through the courts, which has potential to be far more expensive for their employers.

No matter which way an employee claims injury from asbestos exposure, though, their work is cut out for them in today's courts. Multi-district litigation (MDL) for asbestos is considered one of the longest-running mass torts in U.S. history. Because it is present in so many materials in so many places, and because fibrotic lung disorders can take time to manifest and cause damage, it can be hard to pin the injury on a specific employer. A lawsuit can't bounce among defendants until it determines who's to blame, and companies use this to their advantage in cases where itinerant workers moved between jobs and factories in the course of their careers. It may seem wrong for an insulation manufacturer the pass the buck to a naval shipyard when both used copious amounts of asbestos, but unless a plaintiff has specific medical records denoting when the first symptoms appeared each can blame the other and likely receive summary judgment in their favor.

Another difficulty in these claims is tangling with the statute of limitations. For instance, many injured claimants toiled in factories and naval facilities for wartime production during World War II. Now, decades after industry has largely moved on from using asbestos, many veterans and factory workers of the 30's through the 70's have developed mesothelioma. Some defense attorneys will try to say that too much time has passed to successfully seek damages, but the incubation period of many debilitating asbestos-related lung disorders is between 20 and 50 years.

The Takeaway

As I sometimes do after writing long pieces about our toxic world, I feel compelled to note that I'm not urging panic. We're not always surrounded by a noxious cloud of fibrous asbestos dust no matter where we go. Most modern structures have little to none of the harmful substance in their materials, from concrete to plaster to insulation. Undoubtedly most of us are safe in our homes and places of business.

With that said, concerned people who live or work in older spaces--"historic" buildings converted to offices or apartments, or others built in the mid- to late 20th century (like many schools)--may want to talk to their property managers about the buildings' history with asbestos. Given what we learned about the jailhouse earlier, it seems that despite the threats presented by lingering asbestos dust many administrators are content to let it remain until they're forced to take action. It's a dangerous relic of a time when progress was valued above safety, and people are still paying the ultimate price for it.