Asbestos: History & Its Link to Mesothelioma

By now, most people are aware of the dangers associated with asbestos. Unfortunately, it took an incredibly long time for those dangers to be outlined, and sadly, it took even longer before significant action was taken to stop the damage caused by asbestos inhalation. To this day, despite the risks of developing asbestosis and mesothelioma, asbestos is still widely used in many products. To better understand asbestos and mesothelioma, it’s good to look at its history.

Asbestos & Its Link to Cancer

Historically, mesothelioma was notably difficult to identify and diagnose, and unfortunately, public-health regulations around it were slow in coming. Asbestos was linked to respiratory cancers as far back as the mid-1930s, but it wasn’t until the late 20th century that real bans were put in place. Even then, these bans haven’t prevented the widespread use of asbestos, and the dangers associated with it are still present today.

The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder reported “a sickness of the lungs” in people who wove asbestos into cloth.  French physicians identified lung tumors well before 1800, but it would be decades before asbestos fibers were known to cause such cancerous tumors. It took 60 years, until 1918, for the US to admit officially that asbestos could be lethal to workers and consumers.  However, no immediate regulation came of this admission. 

Asbestos in the United States

In the US, asbestos became a much-used insulation material after the Johns Company built a quarry on New York’s Staten Island in 1858.  A successor, the Johns-Manville company, mined and sold great volumes of asbestos – enough that Johns-Manville is on the current list of companies paying into a trust fund to compensate mesothelioma victims. Johns-Manville, since the 1930s, had researched whether asbestos harmed its workers. Johns-Manville’s research showed that asbestos was a likely cause of cancer. As a result of this discovery, Johns-Manville suppressed publication of that damning research. Then, to make matters worse, Johns-Manville altered the report that outlined the results. The company’s alterations struck out all references to cancer. In 1951, Johns-Manville published their doctored report. What that accomplished was “a wide and adequate circulation” of a falsified report, which effectively blocked the public from access to vital information about the true hazards of asbestos. Eventually, but not soon enough, this kind of negligent behavior would contribute to stiff court judgements against Johns-Manville.

Asbestos in Britain

In 1930, Britain regulated asbestos factories. In 1947, British physician Edward Merewether found that 13 percent of his patients for asbestosis also had lung tumors. The link was made between asbestos and cancerous tumors – mesothelioma. The term mesothelioma refers to the growth of a cancerous tumor in a membrane sac protecting a major organ of the body, most often a lung.  An area of a lung pierced and clogged with asbestos fibers is a wound site. We now know that tumors tend to grow at wound sites.

Passage of the Clean Air Act

In 1970, passage of the federal Clean Air Act allowed Congress to regulate asbestos, but the hazardous material continues to be used in manufacturing some fire safety products. In July of 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products. Unfortunately, this ban was overturned in 1991 by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. As a result of this decision, asbestos is used in products such as flooring felt, rollboard, and corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper. The ruling does maintain the ban on using asbestos in products it had not been previously used in, meaning there are no new uses of asbestos. Special protections to prevent risky exposure to asbestos have been created, mostly in schools. Meanwhile, some manufacturers of products which contained asbestos have reformulated their products to make them less risky. While there are fewer cases of harmful exposure to asbestos these days, it’s dominance in building supplies prior to 1970 make it an ongoing concern for construction workers as well as anyone owning an older home.

If you believe you might have been exposed to asbestos, or if you have questions related to mesothelioma and your options, don’t hesitate to contact the experienced mesothelioma attorneys at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield today.


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