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Asbestos Basics

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that has been used as insulation and as a fire retardant in a wide variety of products. Because of its durable, fibrous nature, asbestos can produce dust that, when inhaled, becomes deposited in the lungs -- causing or contributing to the development of illnesses including asbestosis (a fibrous scarring of the lungs) and mesothelioma (a malignant form of cancer in the lining of the chest or abdominal cavities).

Because of health concerns, all new uses of asbestos in the United States were banned in July 1989. That year, the EPA published Asbestos: Manufacture, Importation, Processing, and Distribution in Commerce Prohibitions, the effect of which was to eventually ban about 94 percent of the asbestos used in the U.S. (based on 1985 estimates). Most asbestos uses established before that date are still allowed, but are strictly regulated by the government. Even with government regulation, asbestos-related lawsuits have been filed regularly since the 1960's, and continue to be filed frequently today.

Who Is at Risk for Asbestos Exposure?

Many people wonder if they are, or have been, exposed to the health risks caused by asbestos. Health hazards from asbestos dust have been recognized in workers exposed in shipbuilding trades, asbestos mining and milling, manufacturing of asbestos textiles and other asbestos products, insulation work in the construction and building trades, brake repair, and a variety of other trades. Demolition workers, drywall removers, and firefighters also may be exposed to asbestos dust.

People whose work brings them into contact with asbestos -- workers who renovate buildings with asbestos in them, for example -- may inhale fibers that are in the air; this is called occupational exposure. Workers' families may inhale asbestos fibers released by clothes that have been in contact with asbestos-containing materials; this is called paraoccupational exposure. People who live or work near asbestos-related operations might inhale asbestos fibers that have been released into the air by such operation; this is called neighborhood exposure.

The amount of asbestos to which someone is exposed will vary, according to:

  • The concentration of fibers in the air
  • The duration of exposure
  • The person's breathing rate (workers doing manual labor breathe faster)
  • Weather conditions
  • Any protective devices the person might be wearing

Although it is known that the risk to workers increases with heavier exposure and longer exposure time, investigators have found asbestos-related diseases in individuals who had only brief exposures. Workers who develop asbestos-related diseases may show no signs of illness for a long time after their first exposure. It can take from 10 to 40 years for symptoms of an asbestos-related condition to appear. Because of this time-lapse issue, many states allow people to file lawsuits within a certain amount of time after the injury was discovered.

Compensation for Asbestos Exposure Injuries

Many effects of toxic asbestos exposure are permanent and irreversible. Although the law seeks to place an injured person in the position he or she was in before an injury, this usually is not possible. Instead, economic compensation thought to be equivalent to the victim's damage is awarded. A plaintiff who can prove that he or she was exposed to asbestos may be able to recover for both the economic and noneconomic consequences of that exposure, including:

  • The cost of past and future medical care
  • The cost of necessary rehabilitation
  • Lost past and future wages
  • Lost earning capacity
  • Lost enjoyment of life
  • Emotional distress
  • Past and future pain and suffering

Another kind of damages that plaintiffs injured by asbestos may be able to recover are "punitive" damages. Punitive damages are intended not to compensate the victim for his or her losses, but to punish the defendant's wrongful conduct. Although punitive damage awards receive a lot of media attention, they are in fact quite rare. The amount of punitive damages awarded is usually based on the wealth of the defendant and the magnitude of its wrongful conduct. Some states require that a portion of punitive damages awards be paid to the state.

Get Free, Professional, Legal Help Today

If you're concerned about potential exposure to asbestos, or if you or a loved one suffer from asbestosis, mesothelioma, or another medical condition associated with asbestos exposure, you should take action to protect your legal rights. A great first step is to meet with an experienced attorney for a free claim evaluation. An attorney will be able to discuss your legal options with you and help you decide on a course of action.

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