Few materials have affected entire industries quite like the scourge of asbestos. Used in everything from insulation to paint, asbestos changed the way we manufactured many of the items we would come to welcome into our homes with open arms.
As a spike in a new form of cancer emerged, however, it became obvious that a serious mistake had been made. Research would go on to show that even a small exposure to asbestos could put a person at a very high risk of developing mesothelioma – a cancer of the membranes in the chest and abdomen. Composed primarily of tiny fibers, these fibers could prove lethal if inhaled.
Tens of thousands of people worked with the material on a daily basis, while millions lived and worked in structures constructed of materials that could be killing them simply by their presence.
Initial federal regulation of asbestos began in 1971 and the alarm bells about it have been ringing ever since. However, some 46 years later, tens of thousands are still dying from mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos, and the numbers appear to be increasing.
Some of this increase is to be expected, as the greatest spike appears to be in those aged 85 and over. This is because mesothelioma can take decades to develop, and in some of these cases the victim may have inhaled the fibers 50 to 70 years ago that would eventually seal their fate. Those in this age range would have been working with asbestos before it caught the attention of the federal government. In other cases, the disease can kill in as few as 20 years.
This is what has regulators concerned. While mesothelioma deaths among those aged 35-65 are down, there are still significant numbers of deaths among those younger than 55. Given the time necessary for mesothelioma to develop, continued deaths in this age suggest that asbestos exposure is still happening – even in the face of nearly 50 years of federal regulation.
It is also possible that this group is part of the so-called “third wave” of asbestos-related cancers. While asbestos use itself is tightly regulated, it is entirely possible for older asbestos installations to become disturbed and airborne over the course of a renovation or tear-down project. If the presence of asbestos wasn’t discovered or disclosed prior to the start of the project, the work team could inadvertently send asbestos fibers flying and not know what happened until it’s too late.
Few materials carry the long-term health implications of asbestos. After all, in 1971, a gallon of gas was 40 cents. A rent payment averaged about $150. And a house would set you back about $25,000. Who would have thought that those walls would be able to kill people living in 2017 and beyond?