Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Hazards of Asbestos

For all its wonderful properties, asbestos was also recognized early on as the cause of respiratory diseases. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder noted that the slaves who worked in the asbestos mines were less healthy than other slaves. (g) He recommended that such slaves not be purchased since they would “die young”.

Pliny the Elder wasn’t the only sage to notice that asbestos wasn’t mother’s milk. Strabo, a 1st century geographer, also observed the rise of health problems among asbestos workers. Since it was noted that asbestos exposure caused primarily a respiratory disease, Pliny the Elder suggested the use of a respirator made of transparent bladder skin to protect workers from asbestos dust. (i)

Modern medicine first documented an asbestos-related death in 1906. Insurance companies began to cut their coverage of asbestos workers. Soon, medical reports began to identify a mystery tumor. The term mesothelioma entered the medical literature in 1931 when it was identified Klemperer and Rabin, and by the 1940’s it was being associated with asbestos exposure. Still, at the urging of industry, public authorities and the medical establishment continued to resist recognizing the connection between mesothelioma and asbestos. Finally, the link became incontrovertible with a 1960 article published in Lancet entitled "Primary Malignant Mesothelioma of the Pleura."

During this time, the growing awareness of the connection between asbestos exposure and asbestosis and mesothelioma eventually brought some government regulation. (Contrary to popular belief, to this day asbestos has not been banned in the U.S., though it has in numerous other countries.) It also brought litigation. During trial discovery proceedings it became clear that the asbestos industry had known about the hazards of the product for decades. Moreover, they had conspired to hide the facts from both their workers and the consumers of their products. This disregard for the health and safety of both employees and consumers led to thousands of successful lawsuits and settlements against asbestos vendors. Over time this led to over sixty companies seeking refuge in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

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