Many people believe that asbestos-related disease is a thing of the past. After all, the use and handling of asbestos has been heavily regulated by the government since the 1970s. The assumption is that the few cases of the diseases seen these days are due to pre-1970s exposure that have developed more slowly than most. However, that assumption would be wrong. The fact is, exposure to asbestos has continued over the last 40 years and we may now be experiencing what doctors call the “third wave” of asbestos-related disease.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is the commercial name given to six different naturally-occurring fibrous minerals. While these minerals have been used by man since prehistoric times, they were not in widespread use until the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s. Seen as almost a miracle product, asbestos minerals possess a high tensile strength and flexibility and a resistance to heat, water, and electricity. Due to these properties, asbestos became commonly used in insulation, fireproofing materials, automotive brakes, cement, and wallboard materials. The various mineral products were mined all over the world, and the United States quickly became the leading consumer of the product. During the construction boom of the early 1900s, asbestos was used in many different construction materials.
What Are the Dangers of Asbestos?
As early as 1897, doctors were beginning to link certain lung diseases to an exposure to asbestos, but due to the high demand for the product, early health warnings were largely ignored. Because the fibers easily separate into microscopic particles when handled, workers unknowingly inhaled the particles, which then settled into the lining of breathing passages and the lungs. Workers exposed to asbestos often don’t show symptoms for many years after the exposure, making it difficult to connect the disease to the exposure. Common diseases that have been linked to asbestos exposure include mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.
Asbestos Was Never Banned in the United States
In the late 1960s, labor unions and individuals suffering from disease began to take on the asbestos industry, demanding safer working conditions and an end to the use of asbestos. As successful liability claims against manufacturers began to have an economic impact, the industry sought alternative products. Finally, in the 1970s, the federal government passed legislation limiting the use of asbestos and regulating how it could be handled. However, the use of asbestos was never completely banned in the U.S. and workers continue to be exposed. Some of the asbestos-containing products that are still allowed include:
- Cement corrugated sheet
- Cement flat sheet
- Pipeline wrapping
- Roofing felt
- Vinyl floor tile
- Cement shingle
- Cement pipe
- Automatic transmission components
- Clutch facings
- Friction materials
- Disk brake pads
- Drum brake linings
- Brake blocks
- Non-roofing coatings
- Roof coatings
The Third Wave May Be Here
At a conference convened by concerned doctors, scientists, and union officials in 1990, attendees predicted the threat of new exposure in the years to come, dubbing it the third wave of asbestos-related disease. The first wave, they explained, were the miners, millers, and manufacturing workers who worked directly with raw asbestos. This wave was followed by insulators, shipbuilders, and others working with the completed products. The third wave, they said, would be caused by asbestos being roused from its dormant state in the products listed above. Recent medical cases seem to indicate that this predicted third wave may be in its early stages now. Currently, around 2,700 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed every year in the U.S. Doctors are finding that even light, brief exposure to asbestos can lead to this deadly disease.
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