Asbestos Cancers

Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

What is “Asbestos Cancer”?

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Cancer, simply defined, is the loss of control of cell growth. The rate at which our cells divide and replace themselves is strictly regulated by our genes; when these regulator genes develop errors as a result of DNA damage, cancer can occur. Carcinogens cause cancer by inducing this DNA damage. Asbestos cancer is a cancer caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers.

Asbestos is one of the most potent carcinogens ever incorporated into consumer products. Asbestos is a “complete carcinogen,” meaning that asbestos can produce these genetic errors with no other agent involved. All of the varieties of asbestos fiber have been proven to act as complete carcinogens.

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive type of cancer that affects the mesothelium, a thin layer of tissue that covers and protects certain internal organs in the body. The most common form of mesothelioma affects the lining of the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), but it can also affect the lining of the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma), the lining around the heart (pericardial mesothelioma), and the testicles (testicular mesothelioma). Mesothelioma is generally considered to be a terminal illness, and treatment options are limited. However, early diagnosis and treatment can help to extend life expectancy and improve quality of life.

Lung cancer starts in the lungs, typically in the cells lining the bronchi (major airways), bronchioles (smaller airways), or tiny air sacs known as alveoli. There are two main types of lung cancer, small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. The latter group comprises about 85-90% of diagnosed lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer, also called oat cell cancer, tends to grow and spread more faster than the other types. Inhalation of asbestos fibers is an established cause of lung cancer.

What is Asbestos? A Fibrous Rock

Asbestos is a mineral, mined from the ground like any other, that can easily be separated into fibers. A fibrous rock – really! Asbestos has been mined commercially in Canada, South Africa, some parts of the United States, Australia, Russia, China, and other parts of the world. From a mineralogical perspective, there are two “families” of asbestos fiber types: serpentine and amphibole. Chrysotile is the only serpentine asbestos fiber, and as “serpentine” would imply, its fibers tend to be curly or wavy. Amphibole fiber types include amosite, crocidolite, and tremolite, and these fibers are typically straighter.

The various types of asbestos minerals possess a wide range of commercially useful properties, including tensile strength, the ability to withstand heat, heat and electrical insulating characteristics, acid resistance, and even the ability to be woven. Among many other things, asbestos – this rock mined from the ground – can literally be woven into clothing! (Fortunately, this use has been banned for general use garments by the Consumer Product Safety Commission).

Asbestos Uses – Far More than You Might Think

Asbestos use dates back more than 2,000 years, but its modern usage began in earnest in the late 1800’s. The use of asbestos peaked in the early 1970s, when almost two billion pounds of asbestos was consumed in the United States. By that time asbestos had been used in about 3,000 industrial and consumer products; its predominant applications were in asbestos cement pipe and sheets, insulation, flooring, roofing, gaskets, brakes and clutches, paper, textiles, construction materials such as joint compound used with drywall, and as a reinforcing agent in resins and plastics.

The attorneys at the Stuemke Law Firm have spent decades helping victims of asbestos cancer, and through their thorough investigation have discovered many less well-known uses of asbestos than those set out above. For example, not many people know that asbestos products – including raw asbestos fiber – was used in jewelry making, and even dentistry. After helping his clients recover substantial settlements from the companies responsible for exposing them to asbestos in these unusual scenarios, Jay has repeatedly been asked to share his findings at professional conferences of mesothelioma and asbestos lawyers to help hold these companies responsible for the devastation they have wrought.

How are people exposed to asbestos?

The principal exposure pathway for asbestos in humans is through breathing it in. Asbestos is a sneaky toxin, in part because the body cannot recognize it as hazardous when the exposure is ongoing. When you’re chopping an onion, by comparison, your body will react – your eyes may water, or your nose may run, or you may just notice the strong smell of the onion. And of course, you can see the onion in front of you.

Asbestos fibers, by contrast, have no “onion properties.” The airborne fibers are microscopic, far too small to be seen with the naked eye unless there are so many millions of them in the air that they form a visible cloud of dust. Asbestos has no odor, and produces no immediate biological effects. Asbestos won’t make your eyes water, your nose run, etc. The person breathing in the asbestos fibers usually has no idea that they are inhaling anything unusual at all.

Asbestos fiber concentrations in the air are measured in terms of fibers per cubic centimeter, or f/cc. In ambient air, there may (or may not) be some infinitesimally small amount of asbestos present. The United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has reported a reasonable estimate of this ambient level in outdoor air as 0.00001 f/cc.

In contrast to this negligible amount of asbestos that may be present in the ambient air, most of the asbestos products that were ever made release substantial amounts of microscopic asbestos fibers during their ordinary and intended use. This causes the users of these products to be exposed to asbestos.

How Does an Asbestos Product Cause Exposure to Asbestos?

Asbestos products are dangerous because using them can cause asbestos fibers to become airborne and breatheable. Some products are more prone to create dust than others, but in many cases using the products in the way they were designed to be used releases significant amounts of asbestos fiber into the air.

Consider the example of joint compound. Joint compound, also referred to as drywall mud or simply “mud,” is a product that is used to cover and smooth the seams between drywall boards. It has been used in most residential and commercial construction projects since drywall was popularized after the end of World War II. Because the fibers of asbestos did an excellent job of strengthening and reinforcing the joint compound, asbestos was almost always used in these products until it was banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1977. Joint compound was sold either as a dry powder that needed to be mixed with water – usually with a paddle mixer attached to a drill – or as a premixed compound. But regardless of how it came packaged, it would always need to be sanded smooth after it was applied, typically multiple times. The workers would then typically sweep up the dust left over from sanding. All of this work was expected and intended by the manufacturers of these products, and all of this work released astronomical levels of asbestos fibers into the air, as this chart demonstrates:

To put it bluntly, using asbestos-containing joint compound in exactly the way it was designed to be used exposed workers to millions of times the amount of asbestos that may be present in the ambient air.

Some other asbestos products are less dusty than joint compound, causing less exposure, while others are even more dusty. But as the Consumer Product Safety Commission made clear in banning asbestos-containing joint compounds, that distinction obscures the fundamental point that asbestos in any amount greater than ambient or background is deadly.

Is there a Safe Level of Exposure to Asbestos?

No. The only “safe” level of exposure to asbestos is no exposure to asbestos above whatever may be present in some ambient air. This is the consensus of the mainstream scientific community and the conclusion of every major health and regulatory agency in the world that has studied the question. The World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, United States Environmental Protection Agency, United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration, United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, and others, have all recognized that the only safe level of exposure to asbestos above background is zero.

Is there Asbestos in Talc?

Johnsons Baby Powder

Yes, asbestos is present in the vast majority of talc samples tested with the most sensitive testing methodologies. Talc used for commercial purposes has traditionally been divided into two categories — industrial talc and cosmetic talc. While industrial talc would frequently contain in excess of 40% asbestos fibers (a truly shocking amount), cosmetic talc almost always contained far less. The cosmetics industry, led by Johnson & Johnson, joined together through their trade group to adopt a testing methodology that was deliberately designed to not detect the asbestos it knew was present in most of their products. Johnson & Johnson in particular knew that the talc mines from which it obtained talc for use in Baby Powder was laced with asbestos as early as the 1950s. Through the concerted action of the cosmetics industry, millions of unsuspecting consumers have been exposed to deadly asbestos fibers. Jay Stuemke has been among the leaders of the effort to hold the cosmetics industry accountable for the disease and death it has caused. 

What if I was Exposed to Multiple Sources of Asbestos?

Asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma are dose response diseases. Dose-response simply means that as a person’s exposure to asbestos (their “dose”) increases, their risk of developing an asbestos-related disease (the “response”) also increases. A dose-response relationship is observed in many diseases; a commonly understood example is the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

People who develop mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer frequently have had a multitude of exposures to asbestos in their lifetimes. It may seem that this fact would make it difficult to show which of those exposures actually caused the person’s asbestos cancer, but both medically and legally this is not the case. Medically, asbestos lung cancer and mesothelioma are cumulative-dose diseases, meaning that it is an individual’s cumulative dose of exposure to asbestos that causes the asbestos-related cancer. This is because, as a person experiences repeated asbestos exposures through their lifetime, some portion of the inhaled asbestos fibers are retained in the lung and can be translocated to other areas of the body. Studies have shown, for instance, that inhaled asbestos fibers preferentially translocate from the lung itself to the pleura, the lining of the lung where mesothelioma most commonly develops.

An easy way to understand the concept of cumulative dose is, once again, found in the cigarette smoking example. If a heavy smoker develops lung cancer, everyone would understand that it was not a single cigarette that caused their cancer but that the cancer was caused by the cumulative effect of heavy smoking.

The law in at least most American jurisidictions, and certainly the law in Hawaii, recognizes this same concept. There can be multiple legal causes for a single event. In the case of an asbestos cancer, every company responsible for an exposure that was a substantial factor in causing an individual’s asbestos lung cancer or mesothelioma can be held legally responsible for their disease.

Compensation for Asbestos Cancers

Troves of documents and testimony discovered through extensive litigation has established that the asbestos industry, and the companies that incorporated asbestos into their own products, recognized the fatal risks of asbestos exposure nearly 100 years ago but failed to protect workers and consumers from these hazards. Many of these companies have established trusts to compensate people exposed to asbestos from their products, while others continue to deny responsibility for the harms they’ve caused. The Stuemke Law Firm has extensive experience helping clients obtain the maximum compensation possible through both systems.