Recent years have seen a constant tide of TV commercials advertising informational packets, often referred to as meso books, designed to inform mesothelioma patients and their loved ones about the continuing asbestos litigation. These asbestos TV ads, produced by a variety of plaintiffs’ law firms, offer free mail-order guides to the disease of mesothelioma, a cancer almost exclusively caused by occupational or residential exposure to asbestos fibers.
Mesothelioma Claims & Settlements
While there can never be any guarantee of a lawsuit’s success, mesothelioma patients and their families should take heart: people who were exposed to asbestos and developed a lung condition have an excellent chance at securing financial compensation. Years of legal proceedings have proven – undeniably – that asbestos manufacturers and employers lied about the dangers of asbestos exposure and allowed unsuspecting workers to be surrounded by a deadly carcinogen for decades.
It’s not a debate. There’s no argument. The companies that used asbestos, along with those that mined and distributed the mineral, are legally responsible for the devastating cases of cancer and asbestosis that have hurt the lives of so many American workers.
In fact, the evidence against employers is so damning that many corporations have been forced to set up asbestos trust funds, reserves of money intended exclusively to compensate people who developed lung cancer, mesothelioma or asbestosis on the job.
How Asbestos Trust Funds Work
Faced by waves of mesothelioma lawsuits, many prominent asbestos manufacturers and industrial companies have been forced into bankruptcy. Some estimates place the number of companies that have gone bust due to asbestos litigation around 100. The true number is probably higher. It will surely continue to increase.
Bankruptcy, however, doesn’t mean that a company has stopped paying out mesothelioma settlements. Out of those 100 now-defunct companies, around 60 have created their own mesothelioma trust funds for victims – with outstanding assets of nearly $40 billion.
Importantly, each of these trust funds is run by an impartial board of trustees, not the company itself. The company’s role is just to fund the trust, following the dictates of the bankruptcy court. The amount of money set aside for mesothelioma victims is actually growing, as more companies who should be held liable for exposing people to asbestos finalize their bankruptcy proceedings.
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Do We Have To File A Lawsuit?
While few mesothelioma cases actually go to trial, every claim for compensation begins as a lawsuit. In practice, most of these asbestos-related lawsuits will end in pre-trial settlements. Even though settlement awards are generally lower than jury trial verdicts, bargained agreements are often substantial. The average settlement, according to legal reporting firm Mealey’s Litigation Report, fell somewhere between $1 and $1.4 million.
Around 4,600 asbestos lawsuits are filed every year, says product liability consulting firm KCIC. Each one of these claims names between 60 to 70 different mining companies, employers and other corporate entities as defendants.
What Is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that develops in the lining of organs, usually the lungs, abdomen or heart. It is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos.
There are four main forms of mesothelioma, depending on where the patient’s cancerous tumor begins to develop:
- Pleural mesothelioma – develops in the lining of the lungs – 80% of cases
- Peritoneal mesothelioma – develops in the lining of the abdomen – 10% – 30% of cases
- Pericardial mesothelioma – develops in the lining of the heart cavity – less than 1% of cases
- Testicular mesothelioma – develops in the lining of the testicles – fewer than 100 cases total
Around 10,000 people die every year due to lung ailments directly caused by asbestos. The National Cancer Institute says that about 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are identified annually.
Long Latency Period
Mesothelioma has an extremely long latency period – the amount of time between exposure to a carcinogen and the development of cancer. In fact, many patients don’t even begin to experience the symptoms of mesothelioma until between 20 and 50 years after their exposure to asbestos.
A 2013 review of British asbestos workers exposed to the mineral between 1978 and 2005 found that, on average, mesothelioma developed nearly 23 years after an individual’s exposure. Other studies suggest even longer latency periods, between 35 and 40 years after exposure.
There is also evidence that the latency period for women exposed to asbestos may be far longer than the latency period in men. These long latency periods are a primary reason why mesothelioma deaths continue to climb worldwide, even though most developed nations have banned the use of asbestos in new construction projects and cracked down on the mineral’s imports.
It also makes mesothelioma a difficult disease to treat; the gap between exposure and symptomatic presentation frustrates both diagnosis and intervention.
Asbestosis: A Precursor To Lung Cancer
Asbestosis, an associated condition, involves chronic inflammation and scarring of lung tissue. Most common after long-term (usually occupational) exposure to asbestos fibers, asbestosis significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer or mesothelioma in the future.
Like mesothelioma, asbestosis is marked by a long latency period. Symptoms usually don’t manifest until after decades of asbestos exposure. The most frequent symptom of asbestosis is a severe shortness of breath.
While progression to cancer is likely the most severe complication of asbestosis, the condition can have devastating consequences of its own. For one thing, people with asbestosis live at an increased risk for respiratory failure, a potentially-fatal decrease in blood oxygen levels.
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What Is Asbestos?
The term asbestos refers to a family of six naturally-occurring minerals, which have been used for centuries to manufacture a range of common products:
- flooring materials
- roofing shingles
- ceiling tiles
- plastic and vinyl products
Technically, asbestos minerals are referred to as silicates, because their chemical structure includes a distinctive use of the chemical element silicon. This definition doesn’t really tell us much about asbestos, though, since thousands of minerals on Earth are also classified as silicates. In fact, most of the Earth’s crust is formed from silicate-type minerals, as are the majority of asteroids and moons.
Asbestos minerals, on the other hand, are characterized by the specific structure they take: long and thin crystalline fibers. These fibers are themselves made up of millions of extraordinarily small mini-fibers, which can break off and enter the air when abraded.
Does All Asbestos Cause Cancer?
All six forms of asbestos are known to be human carcinogens, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization. As the organization’s experts wrote in 2011, “there is currently overwhelming evidence that all commercial forms of asbestos fibers are causally associated with an increased risk of mesothelioma and lung cancer.”
How Asbestos Conquered The World
Initially valued for their strength and fire-resistance, fibers of asbestos minerals had woven themselves into a vast array of industrial products by the mid-19th century. Asbestos was cheap and plentiful, with natural deposits discovered around the world – with huge mines in Canada, Russia and South Africa. US deposits were extensively mined on Staten Island and in Vermont, with production soaring at the turn of the 20th century.
Fifty years later, asbestos had even become a central component in cigarette filters – with tobacco manufacturer Kent heralding a new asbestos-containing filter as “the greatest health protection in cigarette history.” Needless to say, Kent never revealed to the public that its new innovation contained one of the deadliest ingredients in the known world.
Researchers Knew Asbestos Was Dangerous By 1900
Medical researchers, though, had already expressed concerns over the strange health conditions that appeared to crop up near asbestos mines. British scientists, who noticed an association between occupational asbestos exposure and lung disorders (eventually collected under the heading of “asbestosis”) as early as 1899, were particularly vigilant.
By the turn of the century, researchers had tipped government regulators off to the disproportionate number of premature deaths and lung-related ailments occurring in towns located near asbestos deposits. In 1902, the Inspector of Factories in Britain had already listed asbestos as a “harmful industrial substance.” France and Italy quickly followed suit.
Conclusive medical evidence came in 1930, after the death of an asbestos yarn spinner in Manchester led England to establish a formal inquiry into the mineral’s harms. Soon, the United Kingdom’s Medical Inspector of Factories, Dr. E.R.A. Merewether, had concluded that asbestos exposure was irrefutably linked to the development of asbestosis. Strong industrial regulations were established, dictating necessary ventilation requirements.
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Navy, Asbestos Manufacturers Hid Risk From Workers
Mesothelioma was first defined in 1931, but only associated with asbestos exposure about a decade later. That’s when regulators in the United States picked up on the industrial standards established in the UK and other European countries. The breakout of World War II in 1939, however, spurred a second explosion in asbestos production and use.
The minerals became key components in the US Navy’s efforts to strengthen the country’s position on the seas. Hundreds of thousands of shipyard workers were exposed to high levels of asbestos fibers as they used the material to insulate pipes, steam engines and boilers. The rate of mesothelioma in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, home to the world’s largest naval base, is seven times higher than the national rate, according to the Virginian-Pilot.
Shipyard Workers Take To Court
Asbestos’ threat to public health, however, was hidden. As court documents published during the course of asbestos litigation have revealed, major asbestos manufacturers were well aware of the product’s significant dangers – but failed to warn or protect workers until nearly three decades after the War had ended.
The Navy itself was complicit in this national tragedy, which has left at least 100,000 people dead or battling terminal cancers, issuing “stringent” safety standards without enforcing them. Thirty years later, the military even broke its own prohibition on the use of asbestos in shipbuilding – and silenced workers who wanted to speak out with restrictive gag orders.
Thousands of former shipyard workers have now filed lawsuits over their asbestos-related lung disorders, securing nearly $1 billion in financial compensation to date. Family members have also joined the litigation. According to the National Cancer Insititute, people who live with workers exposed to asbestos may also be at an increased risk of getting mesothelioma.
Asbestos In Homes: Are Families Safe?
While the mineral’s most widespread uses were found in the construction industry, most everyday consumers also found themselves surrounded by asbestos. Our homes and cars were literally lined with the stuff. Despite asbestos’ global use, experts say that most homeowners shouldn’t be worried.
Asbestos only becomes a problem when it’s disturbed, allowing fibers of the mineral to disperse into the air. In fact, removing asbestos insulation or drywall may be more dangerous than leaving it alone, because remediation creates a risk of launching mineral strands into the environment. The risk of exposure is significantly lower when asbestos-containing materials are left undisturbed and enclosed.
These assurances should calm the anxieties of most homeowners, since asbestos-containing insulation and other building materials are still extremely prevalent. A 2015 article from the Guardian suggests that more than 50% of private residences in Britain still consist of some asbestos materials. Even so, accidents can happen. Renovations can inadvertently compromise ceiling tiles or agitate insulation, putting workers or residents in harm’s way.
When Was Asbestos Banned?
It’s surprising but true: the United States still hasn’t banned asbestos completely. While the European Union and United Kingdom have now forbidden the mineral’s importation and use, the US remains a notable exception.
The Environmental Protection Agency has now banned the use of asbestos-containing products to manufacture commercial paper and flooring felt, asbestos is still used here in some historical applications, like vinyl floor tile and cement pipe.