Until the last few decades, most people were not even remotely aware of the connection between lung cancer and asbestos. In fact, until the late-1970s—around the same time asbestos hazards became public knowledge—even cigarettes were only loosely connected with the often-fatal condition. Lung cancer wasn’t a chief health concern prior to 1980, and most Americans were unclear on exactly what caused it.
Things are different today.
We now know that cigarettes cause at least 90 percent of all lung cancers. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even branded smoking as the single most preventable health risk on earth. But tobacco isn’t alone. Lung cancer from asbestos has become another high profile and worldwide health crisis, though it exists on a much smaller scale and under very different sources of liability.
Compared to tobacco, which is a lifestyle choice—one that people can quit if they commit to doing so; asbestos is a silent and secreted killer—one that its victims are not usually even aware of until it is too late.
Asbestos use in the United States was spurned by the Industrial Revolution during the late 1800s. Manufacturing giants of the era brought asbestos into mainstream use after discovering its wide availability and versatility, as well as its extraordinary, natural strength. But most of all, asbestos was valued by the manufacturing industry for its innate heat-resistant and fire-retardant properties.
As such, it was used heavily in the making of various building components—including insulation, ceiling tiles and exterior siding. It was also widely used in the manufacturing of auto parts—especially brake pads and linings—as well as the construction of assorted railway components and shipbuilding materials. Common household goods—like blow dryers, small kitchen appliances and even crayons—often contained asbestos too.
During the late 1920s, a link between several serious illnesses—including asbestosis, mesothelioma and other forms of lung cancer—and asbestos began to form, as the medical community took notice of these conditions afflicting individuals working in asbestos mines.
The most serious of these illnesses is malignant mesothelioma, a rare and fatal type of lung cancer that affects the lining of some internal organs. As of the 1950s, mesothelioma had been formally recognized as an asbestos-related malady.
Mesothelioma is the result of damage caused by asbestos fibers that have become lodged in the mesothelium—a thin, film-like barrier that coats the stomach, heart and lungs. These fibers are inhaled or swallowed, subsequently causing irritation and the formation of scar tissue and eventually tumors. If these tumors contain malignant cells, the victim ultimately receives a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Once the correlation between lung cancer and asbestos had been conclusively made, the U.S. government took action to severely restrict and limit its use. However, some older buildings are still likely to contain asbestos-made materials—meaning that workers in certain industries, particularly construction, are still advised to use caution in the workplace.