Mesothelioma and Asbestos: Part I

Asbestos was recognized to be a toxic substance as long ago as the 1890’s although it was not linked with specific diseases until recently. A multitude of lawsuits have been filed against asbestos manufacturers since 1929 with cases even traveling up to the United States Supreme Court. Nonetheless, no Federal Laws were ever created to address compensation for those suffering as a consequence of asbestos exposure leaving many sufferers without any assistance at all. Compensation is meant to address not only medical costs but also the pain and suffering resulting from the asbestos exposure as well as loss of income.

Although asbestos exposure is often ‘on the job’ exposure, a spouse simply washing the clothes of a family member subjected to ‘on the job’ asbestos exposure is likewise subjected to inhalation of asbestos dust and fiber. Even such seemingly minimal asbestos exposure places the spouse at risk for also succumbing to asbestos induced health problems. Residents living near factories or mines utilizing asbestos are also at risk for developing asbestos inhalation health disorders.

Unfortunately, asbestos inhalation may trigger a multitude of health problems. For example, a condition termed asbestosis refers to an inflammatory, chronic and prolonged lung disease that may inflict permanent lung damage. Moreover, asbestos exposure places an individual at risk for developing cancer. Due to the ubiquitous nature of asbestos and the magnitude of the damage it inflicts, compensation for asbestos related injuries lies in the billion dollar range. In general, the symptoms of asbestos related diseases include, but are not limited to, shortness of breath, wheezing, hoarseness, a persistent cough and/or coughing up blood, difficulty swallowing, chest pain, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, or anemia.

One form of asbestos cancer affects mesothelial cells. The associated cancer is termed mesothelioma, or more specifically, malignant mesothelioma. Asbestos was definitively linked as the causal agent of mesothelioma by observing that a group of mine workers were succumbing to mesothelioma after working in an asbestos mine during a specific time period which was the only activity all of them had in common.

Mesothelial cells form a tissue termed the mesothelium which protects organs by producing a lubricating fluid. Location within the body sometimes dictates the name given to the mesothelium. For example, the pleura lines the lungs and internal chest walls, the peritoneum lines the abdominal cavity, and the pericardium surrounds the heart. While the pleura (mesothelium lining lungs and internal chest walls) is the mesothelium most commonly affected by asbestos exposure, the other mesothelial tissues may also succumb to asbestos cancer.

Mesothelioma may have a latency period which is a period of time after the patient is exposed to asbestos but before the cancer is detected and the patient is primarily asymptomatic (without symptoms). In fact, mesothelioma may have an unusually long latency period even ranging from ten to sixty years. Over time, the patient begins developing symptoms with some symptoms taking decades to present.