Asbestos has been a highly desirable material for more than 2000 years for its fire-retardant qualities. Although lung problems were noticed in ancient Greece and by Roman slaves who wove asbestos into cloth, it wasn’t until 1924 that the first diagnosis of “asbestosis” was made following the death of a 35-year-old woman who had been working with asbestos since she was 13 years old. In the 1920’s and 30’s, medical journals began publishing the results of studies that showed links between asbestos and cancer. Since then, governments around the world have implemented laws and regulations to protect their citizens. However, companies around the world are still manufacturing products that include asbestos or are handling products that still contain it.
Today many workers around the world are still being exposed to mesothelioma-linked materials. In Minnesota, a team of health professionals is studying deaths caused by mesothelioma among workers who mined asbestos-laced taconite in the Iron Range. These professors from the University of Minnesota have shown the incidence of death from cancer to be considerably higher than normal. They recently increased the total of deaths in 2010 to 82 from the previous 63, after tracking workers who left the state and later died from mesothelioma.
Within the same week, a group of former Scottish ship workers were successful in their case against several insurance agencies that were trying to avoid compensating the workers for damages associated with exposure to asbestos in the shipyards. The companies were attempting to overturn the Damages Act of 2009 (an Act of the Scottish Parliament), which allows patients suffering from pleural plaques to file claims for compensation. These pleural plaques are malformations of lung tissue that develop around asbestos fibers and may later develop into mesothelioma. The insurance companies claim that the pleural plaques present no symptoms and therefore cause no physical harm, therefore requiring no compensation, as damages are nonexistent. Advocates of the act claim that the compensation is necessary, as many of these patients are aware that their condition could may develop into mesothelioma, requiring a great deal of expense to cover mesothelioma treatment and therapy.
In Australia, a group of shipyard workers complained that the ship they were working on contained a large amount of asbestos in the gasket material. The workers claim to have been exposed for up to 24 hours. Apparently the boat, a tugboat, was built in China, where uses of asbestos are frequent.
So far, some industries’ regulations of asbestos use have not accounted for the reality that China and other countries are mining asbestos and exporting it. A combination of inconsistent regulations, global trade and the challenges of enforcement make it very difficult to protect workers in some areas and industries around the world.