At some point in our lives, nearly all of us have been exposed to asbestos in the air we breathe and the water we drink; from natural deposits in the earth, and from the deterioration of asbestos products around us. Most of us, however, do not become ill as a result of our exposure. More commonly, those who at some point are diagnosed with asbestos disease, have worked in jobs where more substantial exposure occurred over longer periods of time. Nevertheless, cases of mesothelioma have been documented as the result of lesser exposure, affecting family members of workers who came into contact with asbestos and brought it home on their clothing, skin or hair, or affecting those who lived in close proximity to asbestos manufacturing facilities. Symptoms of asbestos disease usually are not be apparent until decades after exposure.
Asbestos was used commercially in North America as early as the late 1800s, but its use increased dramatically during the World War II era when shipyards produced massive numbers of ships for the war effort. Since that time, asbestos-containing products were used by the construction and building trades, the automotive industry and the manufacturing industry. All told, more than 5,000 products contained asbestos.
For more than 50 years, products containing asbestos remained unregulated, and the manufacturers of those products continued to prosper, knowing full well that many of the millions of workers who came into contact with their products would ultimately suffer as the result of their actions. Finally, in the late 1970s, the Consumer Products Safety Commission banned the use of asbestos in wallboard patching compounds and artificial ash for gas fireplaces because the fiber could easily be released during use. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency banned all new use of asbestos, but uses established prior to that time were still allowed. Although awareness of the dangers of asbestos and public concern over the issue have led to a decline in domestic consumption over the years, a total ban on asbestos has not come to fruition. Asbestos is still imported, still used and still dangerous.
Although it is suggested that the number of mesothelioma cases in the U.S. has reached its peak and has begun to drop, a forecast released by the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER), in April, 2003, projected the total number of American male mesothelioma cases from 2003-2054 to be approximately 71,000. This number, however, does not take into consideration events such as the World Trade Center disaster on September 11, 2001, when millions of New Yorkers were potentially exposed to air filled with carcinogenic asbestos particles. When the latency period for asbestos disease is factored in, cases of mesothelioma will continue to be diagnosed for years to come. See our page on mesothelioma risk factors.