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Asbestos Cancer, Facts and Historical Information

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July 21, 2008

Asbestos Cancer, Facts and Historical Information

According to a recent report by the World Health Organization, exposure to asbestos fibers at the workplace is one of the leading causes of occupational disease worldwide.  The story of asbestos and the diseases it causes are an American tragedy. The lives and health of thousands of American families are negatively affected by prior exposure to asbestos. Unfortunately exposure still occurs today. All to often individuals, companies and even municipalities have been caught trying to hide the removal of asbestos from the public.
Our goal is to inform you as to how exposure to asbestos occurs. We will also provide examples of work environments that lead to exposure. Work trades and activities that put Americans at certain risk of exposure to asbestos contamination. For over thirty years the courts have been making very large compensation awards to individuals and their families exposed directly or indirectly to asbestos.

1. What is Asbestos Cancer (Mesothelioma)

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer in which cancerous (malignant) cells are found in the mesothelium, a protective sac that covers most of the body's internal organs. Most people who develop mesothelioma have worked on jobs where they inhaled asbestos particles.

Mesothelioma (cancer of the mesothelium) is a disease in which cells of the mesothelium become abnormal and divide without control or order. They can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. Cancer cells can also spread (metastasize) from their original site to other parts of the body. Most cases of mesothelioma begin in the pleura or peritoneum.

The mesothelium is a membrane that covers and protects most of the internal organs of the body. It is composed of two layers of cells: One layer immediately surrounds the organ; the other forms a sac around it. The mesothelium produces a lubricating fluid that is released between these layers, allowing moving organs (such as the beating heart and the expanding and contracting lungs) to glide easily against adjacent structures.

The mesothelium has different names, depending on its location in the body. The pleura is the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the wall of the chest cavity. The peritoneum is the mesothelial tissue that covers most of the organs in the abdominal cavity. The pericardium covers and protects the heart. The mesothelial tissue surrounding the male internal reproductive organs is called the tunica vaginalis testis. The tunica serosa uteri covers the internal reproductive organs in women.

The most prevalent form of this asbestos cancer is pleural mesothelioma, which arises in the pleura (the lining of the lungs and chest cavity). Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the lining of the abdominal wall, called the peritoneum. Pericardial mesothelioma affects the pericardium, which is the lining of the heart.

These cancers mainly result due to exposure to asbestos. Approximately 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the United States each year. Typically the period of time between exposure to asbestos and visible onset of the disease is long. Thus many people who were exposed to asbestos decades ago are currently developing the disease. Opportunities to prevent these cancer illnesses were missed when the asbestos industry hid facts about the dangers of asbestos. Through numerous legal actions it has been proven that the asbestos industry was negligent for decades in hiding the serious dangers that result from asbestos exposure.

Although reported incidence rates have increased in the past 20 years, mesothelioma is still a relatively rare cancer. About 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the United States each year. Mesothelioma occurs more often in men than in women and risk increases with age, but this disease can appear in either men or women at any age.

2. What is Asbestos - Facts and Historical Information

Asbestos: A Historical Overview

The term "asbestos" comes from a Greek word meaning "unquenchable" or "indestructible." Asbestos is a group of mineral fibers that share properties of heat and chemical resistance, flexibility and high tensile strength. Because of these properties, asbestos was at one time popularly known as the "magic mineral"; it has been used in over 3,000 different household or commercial products.

Asbestos has been widely used in many products from as early as the Industrial Revolution until the present time. Thus modern industry was not the first to use this hazardous mineral. Asbestos use began as early as 2500 B.C., when it was used in making Finnish pottery. Another early use of asbestos use was in the wick of a golden lamp crafted for the goddess Athena in the fourth to fifth centuries B.C. During this same period, asbestos cloth was used to hold the ashes of the dead during cremation. Pliny has also described the use of asbestos cloth as a funeral dress for kings. Emperor Charlemagne reportedly displayed a tablecloth made from asbestos that was used during great feasts. After the feast, the cloth and its contents would be thrown into a fire, and the cloth would be removed without damage to the amazement of the guests. In the year 1250, Marco Polo reported an asbestos cloth in the northern provinces of the Great Khan that had the property of being unconsumed and refined by fire.

Industrial uses of asbestos began on a limited scale around 1720, soon after the discovery of relatively large deposits of asbestos in the Ural Mountains in western Russia. The discovery of these deposits led to factories that manufactured asbestos products. Such products included handbags, gloves, stockings, and textiles. In the years that followed, discoveries of different types of asbestos were made on several continents, setting the stage for the mineral's many uses.

Chrysotile asbestos was discovered in 1860 in Quebec, Canada. The mining of chrysotile deposits began in 1878, with 50 tons produced during the mine's first year of operation. Crocidilite asbestos was discovered in South Africa in the year 1815, with the mining of large quantities of South African fibers beginning in about 1910. Amosite asbestos was discovered in the central Transvaal region in 1907, with mining operations beginning there around 1916. The beginning of such mining operations, together with the inception of the Industrial Revolution, set the stage for the widespread use of asbestos, leading to a public health crisis that still affects society today.

3. What is Asbestos - Technical Information

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, divided into two mineralogical groups. Some varieties of asbestos are used commercially.

The first group, the amphibole family, includes crocidilite ("blue asbestos"), amosite ("brown asbestos"), tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite. Among the various types of amphibole fibers, only crocidilite and amosite were used in commercial products. However, the "noncommercial" amphibole fibers (tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite) may be present as contaminants in commercial products that use chrysotile asbestos, vermiculite and talc.

The serpentine group, the other mineralogical group of asbestos, includes the chrysotile variety of asbestos. Despite its hazardous properties, chrysotile was very popular with industry. It accounts for over 90% of the commercial asbestos used in the United States.

Source: PATHOLOGY OF ASBESTOS-RELATED DISEASES (Victor L. Roggli et al. eds., 2004)

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