Asbestos is a natural mineral that has the potential to cause serious illness in people exposed to it. For decades asbestos was used in a range of industries as an insulator and fireproofing material, but nowhere was it used more extensively than in the maritime industry. It was used throughout many commercial ships and navy ships because of its light weight, affordability, and effectiveness at insulating.
Exposure to the fibers asbestos is made of can cause serious damage inside the body. These tiny fibers have been inhaled by thousands of people working on ships and in shipyards. Not everyone gets sick as a result, but those who do end up sick decades later with illnesses like mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. If you developed any of these diseases after working in the maritime industry, you may have been exposed to asbestos and you may be entitled to compensation.
Asbestos and Exposure
Asbestos is mined from deposits in the ground and is also found as a contaminant in other minerals, like vermiculite. It has been used for thousands of years because it can so effectively insulate, fireproof, and add strength to materials. The most popular uses for asbestos over the years have been in shipping and in construction of buildings.
It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that it finally became clear that asbestos was responsible for seriousness illnesses in some people. Workers in industries with heavy asbestos use were getting sick, especially with respiratory diseases, and the connection was finally backed up by research. Asbestos is made up of many little fibers and when those fibers come loose they are small enough to become a part of the dust in the air and on surfaces.
These fibers can easily be inhaled or accidentally ingested by people in the vicinity. The fibers do not move through the body readily and instead get lodged in tissues, like little needles. Here the fibers cause damage, although it is not known why this leads to illness in some people and not others. Anyone exposed to asbestos may potentially get sick many years later.
Illnesses Caused by Asbestos Exposure
The majority of illnesses that asbestos may cause in people are respiratory because the fibers are most often inhaled and generally don’t move past the lungs or chest cavity. They get stuck there, causing damage. One of the illnesses that this damage may cause is called asbestosis. This is a progressive scarring of the lungs that causes breathing difficulties that worsen over time. There is no cure for asbestosis but breathing therapies and supplemental oxygen can ease symptoms.
Asbestos exposure can also cause lung cancer. When someone develops lung cancer it is not always possible to determine if asbestos caused it. However, if there was known asbestos exposure, it can be safely assumed that the fibers were inhaled and that the cancer was at least partly triggered by asbestos. While smoking is the largest contributor to lung cancer, asbestos has proven to have caused a significant number of cases.
Another cancer that is caused by asbestos exposure is called mesothelioma. This is a rare cancer and while a handful of people have developed it without having been exposed to asbestos, it is overwhelmingly caused by asbestos. Mesothelioma is cancer of the mesothelium, a layer of tissue that wraps around organs in the body. Most cases of mesothelioma are pleural, meaning the cancer starts in the pleural tissue around the lungs. Less common is peritoneal mesothelioma, in the tissue around abdominal organs, and pericardial mesothelioma, cancer in the lining around the heart.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Asbestos Illnesses
For most asbestos-related illnesses, especially mesothelioma, symptoms often don’t appear until decades after the exposure occurred. This can make it particularly difficult to diagnose. Also making diagnosis tricky is the fact that the symptoms are similar to more common illnesses like the flu or pneumonia. Mesothelioma can also often be misdiagnosed as lung cancer.
Symptoms that are possible with pleural mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis include shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, a persistent cough that is dry, chest pains or tightness, and loss of appetite followed by weight loss. Asbestosis can also cause clubbing in the fingers and toes. Peritoneal mesothelioma causes pain and swelling in the abdomen, diarrhea or constipation, and bowel obstruction.
To diagnose one of these conditions, a person must undergo a thorough physical exam to rule out other, more common illnesses. Imaging tests, like X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans are then used to image the lungs and other tissue to look for masses that may be cancer or the scarring of asbestosis. If masses are found they are biopsied to confirm the presence of cancer and to examine the cells to determine if it is lung cancer or mesothelioma.
Treating Asbestos Diseases
Asbestosis has no cure but can be treated with medications, inhalers, supplemental oxygen, painkillers, and breathing or respiratory therapy. Fluid may also be removed from around the lungs to relieve pressure and pain. Over time the disease gets worse and is ultimately fatal. Both lung cancer and mesothelioma can be treated with traditional cancer therapies like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
The chance of being able to achieve remission for either cancer depends on the stage at the time of diagnosis and the health of the patient. For most patients treatment only manages the cancer, slows its growth, and relieves symptoms. Curing mesothelioma or advanced lung cancer caused by asbestos is very difficult and rarely possible.
Asbestos Exposure in Maritime Jobs
Workers in several industries are at risk for asbestos exposure, but those who worked in maritime settings decades ago were already put at risk and may develop symptoms and be diagnosed now. Asbestos was used heavily in ships to insulate boilers, turbines, pumps, steam pipes, and other equipment that generates heat. It was also used extensively in fireproofing and in firefighting protective gear. Ships also contained asbestos in hundreds of components including gaskets, seals, ropes, flooring tiles, and adhesives.
The workers who have most been at risk of maritime asbestos exposure were those who worked directly with equipment containing asbestos. Workers in ship engine rooms, pipefitters, steamfitters, maintenance workers, and insulation installers were all at increased risk. Also at risk were workers in shipyards who built ships and made repairs and upgrades to them.
What to Do after an Asbestos Diagnosis
If you worked on or around ships and have now been diagnosed with asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma, you may have become sick because of workplace exposure. Maritime laws may be able to ensure you are covered with workers’ compensation or that you have the chance to sue an employer over negligence for your illness. Depending on your situation and employer you may also be able to make a claim for compensation with an asbestos trust. Many of the companies that made asbestos materials that went on ships set up trusts to compensate victims as part of bankruptcy agreements.
Your next step after a diagnosis should be to contact a maritime lawyer who can help you decide what further steps to take. It can be difficult to navigate trusts, settlements, and lawsuits, especially when sick, but a good lawyer will be able to guide you and advocate for you so that you get what you need.