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Asbestos and Malignant Mesothelioma: A History

Asbestos is an umbrella term applied to six fibrous materials: chrysotile, which is derived from the serpentine mineral group; and amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite, which are derived from amphibole mineral group. According to the Chrysotile Asbestos Fact Sheet, co-authored by the Environmental Information Association and the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, “Chrysotile is the most common variety of asbestos found in products in the United States. It is the most abundant asbestos variety on earth.” Chrysotile is sometimes referred to as white asbestos. However, there are two forms of asbestos derived from the amphibole mineral group that are also commercially viable: amosite, or brown asbestos, and crocidolite, or blue asbestos.

The heat and chemical resistance, as well as the strength of asbestos fibers spawned a lucrative industry before their harmful health effects, which took decades to appear, became known. The asbestos industry, unwilling to part with its commercial viability, capitalized on the controversy within the scientific community that went on for years over the roles of fiber types, viruses, and genetics in the development of mesothelioma to hide the association between asbestos and the disease, say researchers in a study titled The Case for a Global Ban on Asbestos published online July 1, 2010 in Environmental Health Perspectives. The fallout from this delay tactic “…helped to make the disease experiences of asbestos-exposed workers and people in asbestos-contaminated communities invisible and uncompensated, allowing the asbestos industry to escape accountability.”

However, the researchers went on to add that international organizations have called for an end to the use of chrysotile asbestos. In 2007, the World Health Organization expressed its support for countries developing national plans to ban asbestos and eliminate asbestos-related disease by stating that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related disease is to stop using all types of asbestos”. In 2006, The International Labor Organization stated its concern about an emerging epidemic of asbestos-related diseases and passed a resolution to encourage a worldwide ban on asbestos.

In this country, the U.S. National Toxicology Program declared asbestos a proven human carcinogen in 1980, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) followed suit in 1986. The scientific community is now in agreement, say the researchers, that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, and that “there is no evidence of a threshold level below which there is no risk of mesothelioma.”

In spite of all of this, world production of asbestos remains at over 2 million tons annually. Russia leads the production worldwide, followed by China, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Canada, Zimbabwe, and Colombia. These countries made up 96 percent of global production of asbestos in 2007.

The researchers added that all forms of asbestos are now banned in 52 countries, but those countries make up less than a third of World Health Organization member nations. That means that two-thirds of the agency’s member countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin American and Africa will continue to use, import and export asbestos and asbestos-related products. In these developing nations, there is little or no protection of workers and communities, which is the reason these researchers believe that the asbestos cancer pandemic may be the most devastating in those countries.

Here are the conclusions they drew from this study:

“An international ban on the mining and use of asbestos is urgently needed. The risks of exposure to asbestos cannot be controlled by technology or by regulation of work practices. Scientists, physicians, and responsible authorities in countries allowing the use of asbestos should have no illusion that “controlled use” of chrysotile asbestos is an effective alternative to a ban on all use of asbestos (Castleman 2003; Egilman and Roberts 2004). Even the best systems of workplace controls cannot prevent occupational and environmental exposures to products in use, or exposures to asbestos discarded as waste. Safer substitute products are in use in countries all over the world where asbestos is banned.”

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