The impact of asbestos disease and the resulting litigation has been described as happening in “waves.” So far, we have experienced four distinct waves of illness and lawsuits from the impact of asbestos exposure, and we should expect a fifth.
In the early 1900s, we saw the first wave in modern times of death and disease being recognized as coming from asbestos poisoning. These were the miners working in the asbestos mining industry. Mining created the perfect conditions for airborne exposure and many died painful, suffocating deaths from “white lung.” Many more were disabled with diminished breathing due to scarred lungs and died early deaths.
The second wave of industrial workers such as textile workers weaving asbestos fibers into cloth followed as it became apparent that there were no safeguards in place to protect workers creating products from this valuable material. Asbestos products were used for insulation in all sorts of commonly used infrastructure like pipes, boilers, radiators, etc. It was used in linoleum flooring and ceiling tiles. It was even used for its strength and texture as an additive in plasters and paints. Its uses were widespread, in our cars, homes, toys, schools, and workplaces. Insurance companies stopped covering these workers with health insurance and by the 1950’s it was well known that asbestos exposure was causing cancer. Litigation on behalf of these workers began in the 1960s with moderate success and penalties to companies found to be suppressing knowledge of the hazards of exposure.
The third wave hit construction workers using asbestos in buildings, or shipbuilders in World War II, doing the installation of the products the industrial workers had created. Some of these lawsuits have bankrupt companies as the awards run into the billions. A hollow victory for the victims who were long dead from exposure-related disease. What these lawsuits did accomplish, however, was the use of asbestos in post-1980 buildings and products was greatly reduced. Buildings from before the 1980s have a good chance of having some asbestos products in their components.
The fourth wave is coming from an ever-widening population of both workers in the asbestos removal business and to those exposed by living in and near private and public buildings that contain asbestos. Decaying buildings release dangerous asbestos fibers into our everyday environment. Floors and ceilings that crack over time, roofing shingles, pipe insulation, and fireproofing in our homes and public buildings are all contributing to this wide exposure.
Remodeling creates a uniquely dangerous situation as asbestos is often not suspected until it has already been broken into and exposed. Often the workers doing the “de-construction” are homeowners or are at least not specialists in safe asbestos removal. Plumbers may find themselves unknowingly repairing or replacing pipes protected with an asbestos coating. Firefighters are often exposed to burning buildings as are workers in public buildings like janitors.
The Environmental Protection Agency says over 24 million people, just in the USA, have been exposed in public settings; half that again have been exposed in homes and apartment buildings. This widespread contamination is a time-bomb as the lower levels of exposure can take years to produce cancer and lung diseases associated with asbestos, but the numbers are staggering.
The coming fifth wave is the most insidious and far-reaching. This fifth wave is the result of improper handling and disposal of asbestos as it has been removed from our decaying buildings or during remodels. The workers in the asbestos removal industry are at the forefront of this wave but it includes all of us as the environment is poisoned with this “processed” broken fiber asbestos, a known carcinogen, that can be invisibly blown on the wind and inhaled and ingested by us all.
As unglamorous as asbestos removal might be, it is clearly in all our best interest that increased awareness leads to safer handling of this toxic waste. If you are remodeling a home or building from pre-1980, have it inspected for asbestos. Any action that can get particles airborne puts you in extreme danger. That includes sanding, peeling off old wallpaper, tearing off shingles, breaking into walls, pulling up vinyl floors, and acoustical ceiling tiles. Even vacuuming up the dust from a remodel is extremely dangerous as asbestos fibers are microscopic and easily get blown right through the vacuum and into the air you are breathing.
This fifth wave will most likely be the most deadly and most costly.