‘Exploring Mesothelioma: Asbestos and its Deadly Wake’ is part two of a four-part series, which looks at a rare and deadly form of cancer that primarily attacks victims who were exposed to asbestos—a toxic substance abundantly used to manufacture common household products through the later part of the 20th century.
Though its usage did not reach blockbuster proportions until the late 1800s, asbestos has been employed as a building staple for thousands of years. And perhaps surprisingly, evidence of its dangers have existed for about as long: two of the world’s most prominent ancient societies—the Greeks and the Romans, who both used asbestos for weaving cloth—are believed to have documented cases of illness in citizens that worked closely with the substance.
It would be close to another two centuries before the ultimate health crisis linked to mesothelioma and asbestos became daily news, but concerns have been raised throughout history. Doctors in France and later Britain spoke of disturbing patterns of illness and death among individuals that were in regular contact with asbestos, only to be ignored or overlooked by manufacturers who coveted it for its extraordinary physical properties.
Asbestos is resistant to heat and flames, making it an ideal substance for the making of auto parts, construction materials and fire-safety components. After being discovered by North American manufacturers during the Industrial Revolution, it quickly became a standard for all of the aforementioned uses and many, many more. At the turn of the century and beyond, asbestos could be found in such unlikely places as crayons, coffeemakers and cosmetics.
By the 1920s and 30s, when the link between diseases like mesothelioma and asbestos was finally demonstrated conclusively, its value within the manufacturing industry was simply too high to be forfeited. The next 50 or so years would bring an onslaught of conflicting reports about the health effects associated with asbestos exposure, pitting the medical community and manufacturing industry at direct odds with one another.
It wasn’t until 1989 that—after irrefutable proof of its deadly consequences had finally trumped capitalistic denials—the EPA decided to restrict asbestos use in the U.S., bringing into effect a cascade of liability legislation and the sudden dawn of the legal conglomerate known as mesothelioma litigation.
Today, asbestos use in the U.S. is severely restricted, though it continues to be a common manufacturing component in other parts of the world. Regardless, cases of mesothelioma from asbestos contact in decades past continue to be diagnosed at a rate of no less than 3000 per year; and that trend is not expected to slow down anytime soon.
Because of its unusually long latency period, mesothelioma often does not appear until as many as 50 or more years following the exposure that caused it—meaning that individuals who were exposed in the 1970s could continue to receive diagnoses for the next decade or even beyond.