Workers on new construction today have little reason to worry about asbestos. Asbestos-based building materials were phased out several years ago and are no longer commercially available to contractors and the general public.
But only a few decades ago, asbestos was well regarded in the construction industry because of its outstanding fire retardant qualities and its properties as an insulator of both temperature and electrical current. Moreover, it is derived from abundant, inexpensive minerals such as chrysotile and is easy to produce. Thus, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of buildings still standing today, asbestos can be found in tiles, in insulation, and in flooring and ceiling materials.
What’s the problem with asbestos? Quite simply, asbestos consists of exceedingly fine fibers that easily become airborne, especially when asbestos-containing materials are cut or broken. Once they are inhaled, they settle in the lungs, where they will remain for the person’s life, since the human body has no means of eliminating asbestos. And unfortunately, asbestos is a carcinogen. In layman’s terms, this means it causes cancer.
Brief exposure to asbestos normally does not cause cancer, but prolonged exposure, especially to high concentrations, increases cancer risk dramatically over time. Thus, a person who as handled asbestos is unlikely to develop skin cancer on the hands, but someone who has inhaled the fibers is at risk for lung cancer. Smoking increases the lung cancer risk significantly.
Often, asbestos fibers will work their way through lung tissue and into the chest cavity, where it can become lodged in the protective linings there known as the mesothelium. The resulting cancer is known as mesothelioma.
If you have been exposed to asbestos and have suffered health problems, you can sue the persons/companies responsible. The likelihood of winning your case, like any other lawsuit, depends on many factors. In general, however, it will be crucial for you to be able to prove that your health issues resulted directly from the asbestos exposure. Thus, a person who has been smoking three packs of cigarettes per day, was briefly exposed to asbestos, and developed lung cancer will usually have a harder time of it than a nonsmoker who was exposed to asbestos for decades and developed mesothelioma. After all, lung cancer is fairly common among heavy smokers, whereas mesothelioma is a rather rare cancer in people who were not exposed to asbestos.
If you think that you experienced significant exposure to asbestos; and if you have contracted a related disease such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, or asbestosis (a scarring of lung tissue caused by the body’s reaction to asbestos, which in time can seriously impair the functioning of the lungs), you may wish to sue the persons or companies responsible for your exposure, even if it took place many years ago.
But be forewarned: because of the significant financial risk to the defendant in such cases, it’s highly unlikely that the person(s) or corporation(s) you are suing will spare no expense in hiring a competent defense attorney. While you can theoretically file a mesothelioma lawsuit yourself without a lawyer, this is probably not a good idea, since an “amateur” is no match for the legal “big guns.”
Therefore, if you’re contemplating such a lawsuit, you would be wise to consult a competent attorney who preferably has extensive experience with asbestos lawsuits. Such an attorney will be able to advise you as to the merits of your case. If he or she believes that your case has a good chance of succeeding, you may be able to sue on a contingency basis. This means that the attorney will not bill you by the hour “up front,” but rather will share in the proceeds if you win. This eliminates your risk of paying big legal bills for an unsuccessful suit, but promises a much bigger payout to your lawyer if you prevail, which also creates an incentive for your lawyer to fight for as big a settlement as possible. If you don’t have a lawyer, you can consult your local bar association, and they will refer one to you.