More than 100 years ago, asbestos was seen as the ideal building material: it was fireproof, cheap, and easy to use. During the last century, it is estimated that more than 25 million tons of asbestos were used to construct factories, offices, schools, shipyards, and homes. Asbestos was used for fireproofing and insulation on industrial equipment and insulating millions of miles of piping. Even the most common household items contained asbestos. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the medical field began to recognize that a large number of people were dying from pulmonary and lung diseases in areas where asbestos mines and asbestos fabrication plants were located. By 1940, studies were showing a suggested link between asbestos exposure and cancer. In 1955, scientists confirmed a distinctive correlation between ingestion of asbestos fibers and mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. It has now been well documented that the asbestos industry was well aware of these problems, and acted overtly to prevent the public and victims from learning of the dangers of asbestos.
Four diseases have been directly related to asbestos exposure. Duration of the asbestos exposure and type of asbestos exposure directly affects the chances of contracting these diseases:
* Pleural Plaque/Thickening: a scarring of the lining of the lung, but not a cancerous condition. Plaques or thickening impairs lung function by restricting breathing capacity.
* Asbestosis: a non-cancerous fibrous hardening and scarring of the functional tissues of the lungs. Scarring causes lung impairment and can contribute to heart disease. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, and a dry, crackling sound upon inhalation. Advanced chronic asbestosis has been thought to contribute to or cause cardiac failure. A slow and progressive disease, asbestosis has a latency period of 15 to 30 years or more.
* Lung Cancer: The most common type of cancer found in individuals with prolonged exposure to asbestos, it develops through the lung tissue, obstructing air passages. Lung cancer found in the lower lobes of the lungs is most typically associated with asbestos exposure. Latency period can range from 20 to 30 years or more, and cigarette smoking, along with asbestos exposure, puts individuals at a much higher risk for lung cancer.
* Mesothelioma: An unusual type of lung cancer within the thin tissue membranes lining the thoracic and abdominal cavities and surrounding internal organs, it is most commonly associated with asbestos exposure. Symptoms include shortness of breath, pain in the lower back or side of the chest, coughing, and weight loss. This is the most dangerous of the asbestos-related diseases, because it can affect those who have had only low or intermittent levels of asbestos exposure.