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ASBESTOS: The Magic Mineral Turned Deadly Time-Bomb

Dec 1, 2005

A Deadly Time-Bomb in Our Midst

Asbestos has been considered an extremely dangerous and toxic substance since the 1980s. Prior to that point, it was used extensively in industrial sites, homes, schools, shipyards, and commercial buildings in the United States and around the world.

While there are now strict regulations regarding how and where asbestos can be used, it is still present throughout our cities where it remains a threat to workers, residents, students, and anyone else who is exposed to it over long periods of time.

Although asbestos is a deadly time-bomb, it continues to be mined and exported from advanced countries like Canada and Russia to developing nations where more death and disease will eventually follow.

Asbestos producing countries have repeatedly blocked the addition of chrysotile (white) asbestos to the UN list of highly dangerous substances that cannot be exported to developing countries without their knowledge and agreement.

In September 2004, "prior informed consent" (PIC) listing of chrysotile was blocked at the Rotterdam convention meeting in Geneva primarily through the efforts of Canada and Russia. Canada is the world's second-largest exporter of asbestos after Russia.

Numerous vocal critics of Canada's policy on asbestos call the country’s actions nothing more than exporting death to protect the profits of a handful of companies and the jobs of 1,600 miners.

"What's the difference between land mines and asbestos?" asks Dr. Barry Castleman, author of a respected book on the danger of asbestos. "A key difference, of course, is that Canada doesn't export land mines."

In countries like India where the exported asbestos winds up, unprotected workers slash open bags of asbestos fibers in order to mix it with cement. These workers have no choice but to work within swirling clouds of carcinogenic fibers.

In Britain, the Cancer Research Campaign has stated that its study into the European asbestos-linked cancer epidemic should sound alarm bells everywhere, "particularly in the developing world where uncontrolled asbestos is still very common," said CRC director Gordon McVie.

The asbestos industry, however, profits greatly from exporting to developing nations with seven of Canada's top 10 markets being so-called Third World countries.

To preserve that profitability, the Canadian government, the asbestos industry and lobby groups are doing their best to put a good face on the asbestos industry. Both diplomats and journalists are wined and dined and sent on first-class trips as part of this effort.

Philip Landrigan, of New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine - the center that first linked cancer to asbestos in the 1960s - says the asbestos lobby's claim that the fiber is safe is "absolutely untrue."

"Asbestos remains an important cause of human illness," says Landrigan. "All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, and that includes Canadian chrysotile."

Julian Peto, head of epidemiology at the University of London, who wrote the study on the Euro-epidemic, says there's no safe way to use asbestos in developed nations. In developing nations, where there is little money for protective clothing and ventilation systems, workers are being poisoned by the thousands.

"There is no way you can control it in Britain, let alone the third world," Peto says.

Ten European Union members have banned asbestos. France, which banned it in 1997 for health reasons, now faces a Canadian challenge at the WTO. Canada argues the ban violates Canada's rights under international trade rules.

In a speech before an audience of occupational health professionals from around the world who had gathered in Italy, Dr. Joseph LeDou of the University of California's Medical School attacked Canada's asbestos-promoting efforts.

LeDou said Canada was engaged in "the exploitation of ignorance and poverty" in Asia, Africa, and Latin America." He accused Canadian policy makers of "setting up the developing world "for an epidemic of asbestos-related disease, the costs of which will fall on countries that can ill afford it."

Thus, as the asbestos “problem” becomes more acute, public awareness of the looming epidemic and its origins takes on even greater urgency.

Recently, additional studies have been published that demonstrate the dangers of asbestos exposure to be even more serious than previously believed.

The “Magic Mineral” and Its Widespread Use

 

Asbestos is the name given to a group of minerals that occur naturally as bundles of fibers. Once referred to as the “magic mineral,” these fibers can be separated into thin strands which tend to break easily and turn into a dust or powder.

This powder can then easily disperse into the air and attach itself to clothing, furniture, drapes and upholstery, and other surfaces making it easy for people to inhale or swallow it. When that occurs, asbestos can cause a host of serious, and even deadly, health problems.

Between 1900 and the mid 1980s asbestos was used in over 3,000 different products. Some of the more common asbestos-containing products include those listed below:

  • Acoustical panels
  • Acoustical plaster
  • Acoustical tile
  • Adhesive
  • Aircell insulation
  • Aprons
  • Asbestos board
  • Asbestos canvas
  • Asbestos cloth
  • Asbestos cord
  • Asbestos corrugated sheets
  • Asbestos curtains
  • Asbestos felt
  • Asbestos fiber
  • Asbestos fiber felt
  • Asbestos finishing cement
  • Asbestos flatboard
  • Asbestos forms
  • Asbestos furnace tape
  • Asbestos gaskets
  • Asbestos gloves
  • Asbestos insulating blankets
  • Asbestos insulating cement
  • Asbestos insulation
  • Asbestos lap
  • Asbestos micarta
  • Asbestos millboard
  • Asbestos mineral wool
  • Asbestos mittens
  • Asbestos packing
  • Asbestos pads
  • Asbestos panels
  • Asbestos paper
  • Asbestos rollboard
  • Asbestos rope
  • Asbestos seals
  • Asbestos sheets
  • Asbestos sponge block
  • Asbestos sponge cover
  • Asbestos spray
  • Asbestos tank jacket
  • Asbestos tape
  • Asbestos textile
  • Asbestos tiles
  • Asbestos wick
  • Asbestos yarn
  • Asbestos-faced mineral wool
  • Asphalt
  • Attic insulation
  • Automobile hood liners
  • Blaze shield
  • Block
  • Board
  • Boiler wall coat
  • Boilers
  • Bonding cement
  • Cables
  • Calcium silicate insulation
  • Carded asbestos cloth
  • Castables
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Cement
  • Ceramic tile
  • Cigarette filters
  • Clapboards
  • Clay
  • Cloth
  • Clutches
  • Cork board
  • Cork covering
  • Cork-filled mastic
  • Cork mastic
  • Corrugated asbestos sheets
  • Corrugated paper
  • Dry mix joint compound
  • Duct adhesive
  • Eighty-five percent magnesia insulation
  • Emulsion adhesive
  • Emulsions
  • Expansion
  • Expansion joint
  • Fake snow
  • Fibrous adhesive
  • Finishing cement
  • Fire resistant insulation shield
  • Firebrick
  • Fireclad asbestos paper
  • Firefoil board
  • Firefoil panel
  • Fireguard asbestos paper
  • Fireproofing cement
  • Flex board
  • flexible duct connectors
  • Furnace cement
  • Fyrbestos sheets
  • Gasket material
  • Gaskets
  • Generators
  • Goldbestos
  • Gunning mix
  • Hair dryers
  • Heat shield
  • Heatguard
  • High pressure packing
  • Industrial A-C board
  • Insulation coating
  • Insulation duct
  • Insulation jacketing
  • Insulating mix
  • Insulation seal
  • Insulmastic
  • Ironing board covers
  • Joint compounds
  • Kent cigarettes
  • Lagging
  • Lagging adhesive
  • Lagging cloth
  • Lagging tape
  • Leggings
  • Limpet
  • Marine panels
  • Mastic
  • Masonry fill
  • Mastic
  • Mastic adhesives
  • Metal mesh blanket
  • Millboard
  • Mineral wool block
  • Mineral wool insulating cement
  • Mineral wool mineral wool blankets
  • Mittens
  • Mitts
  • Navy sealer
  • Nuclear reactors
  • One-shot cement
  • Packing
  • Packing material
  • Paint
  • Paper
  • Paper tape
  • Panels
  • Patching fiber
  • Patching plaster
  • Permaboard
  • Pipe covering
  • Plaster
  • Powershield
  • Pumps
  • Putty
  • Quick-setting joint compound
  • Railroad electrical arc chutes
  • Raw asbestos fiber
  • Refractory cements
  • Roofing felt
  • Roofing paper
  • Rollboard
  • Rope
  • Rope packing
  • Sealer
  • Sheet packing
  • Sheet rope
  • Sheetrock
  • Sheets
  • Shingles
  • Sound shield
  • Sleeves
  • Spackle
  • Spackle paster
  • Sponge felt
  • Spray
  • Spray fireproofing
  • Stone corrugated sheets
  • Stone sheathing
  • Talc powder
  • Tape
  • Tar paper
  • Transite
  • Troweled coating
  • Turbines
  • Valve rings
  • Valve stem packing
  • Valves
  • Vermiculite compounds
  • Vinyl asbestos floor tile
  • Vinyl wallpaper
  • Waterproofing
  • Welding rods
  • Wick
  • Wires
  • Wood fiber plaster
  • Yarn

 

Serious Health Risks Associated with Asbestos

There are many health risks associated with asbestos including a variety of cancers. One of the most disconcerting facts about asbestos related illnesses is that even people who do not come in direct contact with asbestos can be adversely affected.

Second-hand asbestos exposure has turned out to be just as problematic as second-hand cigarette smoke and just as deadly as direct asbestos exposure.

Asbestosis: One of the more severe health risks associated with asbestos is a chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease called asbestosis. Asbestosis occurs when asbestos fibers are inhaled into the lungs thereby causing lung tissues to become aggravated and scarred.

Some symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath and a dry, wheezing sound made by the lungs upon inhalation. Some of the more serious risks include cardiac failure which occurs primarily in advanced stages of asbestosis.

Unfortunately there is currently no effective treatment for asbestosis and it can therefore be progressively disabling and even fatal. While other asbestos related illnesses can affect people who do not come in direct contact with asbestos but are merely victims of second-hand exposure, asbestosis rarely affects anyone other than individuals who work with asbestos.

Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is another significant and widespread health risk associated with asbestos exposure and unlike asbestosis, it can and does affect individuals who are not directly exposed to asbestos but either live with someone who is an asbestos worker or live near asbestos mining areas or other places where the substance is widely used.

Mesothelioma is a rare and often fatal form of cancer that occurs when tumors form on the membranes surrounding the lungs, chest, abdomen, and sometimes heart. Symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until 30 to 50 years following exposure to asbestos. (In unusual cases, however, the disease may appear more rapidly.)

Sadly, many wives and children, who were subjected to second-hand asbestos exposure decades ago when fathers and husbands came home from work each day covered in asbestos dust, are just now being diagnosed with deadly cases of mesothelioma of their own.

Therefore, experts expect to see a significant increase in the number of mesothelioma cases in the coming decades. Almost all cases of mesothelioma are directly attributable to asbestos exposure.

There are two types of mesothelioma – pleural and peritoneal. Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include shortness of breath and pain in the chest due to a build-up of fluid. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include weight loss and abdominal pain as well as swelling due to too much fluid in the abdomen. Both types of mesothelioma can cause fever, anemia, blood clotting, and bowel problems. When mesothelioma spreads to other parts of the body it has been known to cause severe pain, difficulty swallowing, and swelling of the neck or face.

Lung Cancer: While asbestosis and mesothelioma are the most common health risks associated with asbestos exposure, lung cancer has also been linked to asbestos. In fact, lung cancer is responsible for the largest number of deaths related to asbestos exposure. Individuals who have been exposed to other carcinogens, such as cigarette smoke, are at an increased risk for developing lung cancer than people who have only been exposed to asbestos.

Other Cancers: Evidence suggests that cancers of the esophagus, larynx, oral cavity, stomach, colon, and kidney may be caused by ingesting asbestos. For more information on asbestos-related cancers, contact your local chapter of the American Cancer Society.

Autoimmune Diseases: According to a study conducted by the University of Montan (discussed below), people exposed to high levels of asbestos may face a higher risk in the future of contracting certain autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

While the study did not make a direct connection between asbestos exposure and autoimmune disease, it did find a higher link between asbestos and autoantibody activity in a group of people, suggesting that this could serve as a basis for future disease.

A Disturbing Study from Libby, Montana

Workers who are exposed to asbestos are at a significantly increased risk for developing asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other cancers. In addition to these illnesses, researchers at the University of Montana found that exposure to asbestos can lead to a higher risk of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Researchers studied the effects of asbestos on the people of Libby, Montana, a town that is situated near a mine with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite. The study looked at 50 residents of the town as well as 50 residents from a neighboring town known to have no asbestos exposure.

Researchers found that the Libby residents had levels of antinuclear antibodies (ANA) that were 29% higher than the residents of the neighboring town.

People with ANAs generally have immune systems that may be prone to attack their own body tissues causing inflammation, such as individuals with multiple sclerosis. More than 75% of the Libby residents also had lung problems, some more severe than others that were directly attributable to asbestos exposure.

In addition to those individuals who contracted autoimmune diseases as a result of asbestos exposure, hundreds of people have died from asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related diseases. (So much for living out in the clean air of Montana.)

W.R. Grace & Co., the owner of the vermiculite mining plant in Libby, Montana was charged conspiring to endanger residents of the town as well as with concealing information about health risks from asbestos-contaminated vermiculite.

Grace allegedly allowed the asbestos to spread through the community from commercial buildings to schools and is now facing criminal charges. If Grace is convicted, it could have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines.

According to the indictment, Grace conspired to increase profits and sought to avoid liability by deceiving the government. As a consequence, the government was unable to protect the people of Libby from the serious risks associated with asbestos exposure.

On November 3, the story of the asbestos epidemic in Libby was featured on ABC’s Nightline. The grief-stricken people of the town are outraged that Grace knowingly poisoned thousands of workers and their families. Their lives are destroyed and the town is devastated all because a company failed to be honest about the dangers of asbestos in the mine.

Other Asbestos Studies

A study, published in the may issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found a significant number of cases of mesothelioma in family members of asbestos workers. According to the findings of Dr. Albert Miller of St. Vincent Catholic Medical Center in New York, the cancer, which is almost exclusively caused by exposure to airborne particles of asbestos, most often affects the wives and daughters of asbestos workers and may take over 40 years to develop. A few cases involving sons and other relatives were also found, however.

(On December 15, UPI reported that an inquest in Britain found a 32-year-old man died from an asbestos-related cancer after being exposed to his stepfather's work clothes as a child. According to the Dailey Mirror, Barry Welch of Leicester died from mesothelioma. The young father of three daughters contracted the disease while playing on his stepfather's knee 30 years ago. Welch's stepfather had worked at a power station where the piping was lagged with asbestos.)

The study concluded that the exposure to particles of asbestos carried home on workers’ clothing and bodies was directly linked to 32 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in family members since 1990.

About 90% of mesotheliomas in men have been attributed to asbestos because of their direct exposure to the material at work. In cases involving women, however, linking the disease to asbestos has proven to be more difficult.

Based upon the study results, Dr. Miller theorizes that many of these unexplained cases in women may be related to having lived with an asbestos-exposed worker at some point in their lives.

Another study published in the second issue of the October 2005 of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine of the American Thoracic Society, stated that Californians who live near naturally occurring asbestos sources and who are exposed to low levels of the mineral are at increased risk for developing mesothelioma.

Dr. Marc B. Schenker, of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health, at the University of California, Davis, and four associates, examined 2,908 malignant mesothelioma cases reported from 1988 to 1997. Over 50% of the men and 58% of the women, all of whom were listed in the California Cancer Registry, either had no or little exposure to occupational asbestos at the workplace.

According to the study authors, California has more naturally occurring asbestos source rocks than any other state in the U.S. Previous studies all point to occupational exposure to asbestos as the cause of mesothelioma. But population-based studies, Dr Schenker says, have almost all showed some examples of mesothelioma cases where there was no exposure at work. The new study reveals that the living environment could actually be the culprit in such cases.

In addition to some of these recent studies regarding asbestos exposure, there have been certain developments relating to diagnosis and treatment of mesothelioma.

A five-year study by researchers from several countries, has found that a vitamin E-related compound known as alpha-TOS may kill mesothelioma cells in mice. The compound also halted the growth of mesothelioma tumors and showed promise with respect to suppressing tumors associated with melanoma and breast, lung, and colon cancer.

Dr. Jiri Neuzil of Griffith University (Gold Coast), who headed the study, hopes to begin human trials within two years. Although Dr. Neuzil is encouraged by the results, he is cautiously optimistic since “in the past many experiments showing promise in mice have completely failed in humans.”

One very positive finding in this study was that alpha-TOS selectively pursued mesothelioma cells and destroyed them while causing little, if any damage to normal cells.

Although alpha-TOS is already taken orally by many people as a health supplement, it loses its cancer fighting quality when it is converted to vitamin E by the digestive system. Dr. Neuzil made a cynical observation, however, when he stated that the pharmaceutical industry might not take on alpha-TOS as a cancer cure because the compound cannot be patented.

A study published in theNew England Journal of Medicine (Oct. 13, 2005; vol 353: pp 1564-1573) found that a blood test could help screen for pleural mesothelioma by checking the blood for high levels of a protein called osteopontin.

In a news release, Dr. Harvey Pass, chief of the division of thoracic surgery and thoracic oncology in the cardiothoracic surgery department at New York University Medical School said that blood osteopontin levels "rise dramatically" in the early stages of pleural mesothelioma.

Prior to the new blood test, pleural mesothelioma was difficult to detect in its early, more treatable stages, which led to a high mortality rate and a life expectancy of only a few months.

Pass and colleagues conducted osteopontin blood tests on 190 people, 76 of whom had pleural mesothelioma. The study also considered sixty-nine patients who had asbestos-linked lung disease that wasn't cancerous and current or former smokers with no asbestos exposure.

The study found that higher osteopontin blood levels were linked to pleural mesothelioma but not to noncancerous asbestos-related lung diseases. There also was little difference in the osteopontin levels between the 69 noncancerous asbestos-related lung disease participants and the 45 people without asbestos exposure. Osteopontin levels were similar for men and women.

The Industry-Friendly Asbestos Bill

Currently, some members of congress are attempting to pass legislation that would create a trust of $140 billion to be used as compensation for victims of asbestos-related illnesses.

This bill, known as the asbestos trust fund bill, would take away victims’ rights to fair treatment. It would also allow companies at fault to avoid taking responsibility for their actions by putting a cap on the allowable compensation for injured individuals.

The fund would exist for the purpose of eliminating asbestos lawsuits by creating a 30-year fund financed by companies facing litigation and their insurers. Victims would lose their right to sue for compensation and would be required to go to the fund for relief.

The bill, which is expected to come up as one of the first pieces of legislation in 2006, would actually not apply to the victims of Libby, Montana.

Susan Vento, the chair of the Committee to Protect Mesothelioma Victims, argues that the very fact that Congress would make this exception for the victims in Libby indicates that the terms of the bill are unfair and unjust to all other victims of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) has already mounted a vocal campaign against the passage of the asbestos bill. ADAO’s president, Alan Reinstein, argues that the bill does not adequately protect the rights of asbestos victims and hopes that Senate does not support what he calls “this corporate bailout bill.”

While the group is not opposed to the idea of a trust fund, it would much rather see one that is fundamentally fair, adequately funded, free of bureaucratic delays, and guaranteed to be around long enough to ensure all victims would be properly compensated. ADAO also advocates giving the victims the right to choose between compensation from the fund or a trial.

The bill is problematic in many ways yet asbestos manufacturers and their insurers are still advocating the enactment of this legislation.

Conclusion

 

Asbestos deaths in the United States have reached an all-time high. On a more disturbing note, the number of reported deaths will only continue to rise as more and more people start to show signs of asbestos-related illnesses that have been brewing under the surface for the past 20, 30, or even 40 years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were only 77 asbestos-related deaths in 1968 while that number rose to 1,493 in the year 2000.

The problem with asbestos-related illnesses is that, for the most part, the damage has already been done. Prior to the new government regulations that were passed in the 1970s, asbestos was so widely used that it affected countless individuals.

In fact, many people who are now discovering that they have a disease such as mesothelioma were never aware that they were even at risk because of the significant amount of time that has lapsed since their initial, and perhaps, only exposure.

At this point in time, with all the information that is known about the dangers of asbestos, companies like Grace need to make it their policy to inform workers of the dangers and to take any and all necessary measures to ensure that no one is put in harm’s way. It is therefore inexcusable that situations like the one in Libby were allowed to occur.

In order for asbestos manufactures and other companies to realize the magnitude of their mistakes, they should always be held accountable for their actions.

Pieces of legislation, such as the asbestos trust fund bill, would only increase the problem as they would virtually eliminate the possibility that companies involved in spreading the risk would have to answer for the catastrophic damages caused by their actions or have to take responsibility for causing their employees and their workers families to fall ill or die.

As always, if you or a loved one has any question regarding the information discussed above or believe you have a potential case that you would like to have evaluated, please contact Parker & Waichman at www.yourlawyer.com for a free consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.

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