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What is all the fuss about over asbestos?

This may be a question your dad or uncle asked after a doctor's appointment in which your relative received a diagnosis of an illness associated with asbestos. The doctor may have asked some routine questions about his occupation during the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s. When the answer to that question revealed possible exposure to asbestos, your relative, and perhaps you, became confused as to why exposure to something decades ago would have an impact on your loved one's health today.

Now, you are researching asbestos in earnest attempting to discover more about the material that the doctor said may be the cause of the illness your relative now faces.

What is this stuff?

Asbestos comprises a group of fibrous minerals that occur in nature. The fibers resist heat, and many industries discovered a way to fashion them into materials such as insulation, brake pads or tiles, among other things. Manufacturers used asbestos heavily in decades past until it was discovered that it's toxic to humans. Unfortunately, an individual exposed to this toxic substance may not exhibit any symptoms until decades later.

How does exposure occur?

Asbestos fibers and dust can get into the air. Since they don't dissolve in water or evaporate, they can hang in the air for a significant amount of time. Many industrial and construction jobs, especially up through the 1970s, were plagued by asbestos. When your loved one breathed, he likely also breathed in the fibers or dust. Any amount of exposure can lead to dire health consequences.

Depending on the length and amount of exposure, the fibers can create scar-like tissue in the lungs and the lining surrounding the lungs. It can take years for this to develop, which is why symptoms may not appear for decades. 

Is asbestos still around?

Yes. Many older buildings here in Louisiana and elsewhere may contain asbestos in the insulation, floor tiles and ceiling tiles. During demolition or renovation, the fibers and dust get stirred up, leading to exposure. The United States Environmental Protection Agency prohibited the use of asbestos in any new products starting in 1989, but industries that already used it may still be using it.

The EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have conflicting regulations regarding safe exposure limits. OSHA's rules are much more stringent as the agency attempts to limit workers' exposure to the toxic substance, which the government considers a human carcinogen.

Is there any legal recourse?

The exposure your relative suffered while working may give rise to a legal claim. Because the exposure that has led to the current illness took place decades ago, identifying responsible parties can be problematic, however. In order to be sure, you may need to consult with an attorney who regularly deals with cases of asbestos exposure.

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