Posted on Jun 22, 2021, 3 p.m.
Today, we have gotten better at protecting workers' health, primarily through strict safety protocols and better PPE. But workers still suffer the cumulative effects of decades of exposure to toxins like asbestos, benzene, bleach, butadiene, chloroform, dioxin, and mercury. Take, for example, asbestos; while it may not be widely used in products manufactured or built today, its lethal legacy is particularly shocking.
However, it's still the case that if a cancer cluster is found in a neighborhood or town possibly related to toxic exposure, authorities may not be able to determine the exact cause and do something about it.
Industrial neighborhoods and towns will commemorate resource development and industry with memorials or the marble bust of a factory or paper mill's founder. Still, they will not memorialize the environmental consequences of their work.
A pamphlet in the Tourist Information Booth could outline the path of toxins the factory or paper mill released and is part of that community's heritage, too. Unfortunately, those kinds of legacies are not yet ready to be admitted. They are kept hidden, invisible to the naked eye, like the asbestos fibers themselves.
Hazardous Toxins and Chemicals in the Workplace
Thus, industrial workers may get trapped in an environment where they don't know what all the risks are. The total amount of toxic chemicals present in a person's body can become the burden that they must bear. Their dangerous presence is a placeholder for something that may or may not multiply out of control.
The standards for amounts of toxins allowable for humans to intake usually only deal with one substance at a time. They typically don't consider the burdens of one toxin in coordination with another. They don't take into account the cumulative effects of some of them or all of them together.
As for the two thousand new chemicals introduced into the US every year and the eighty thousand chemicals still untested, how can the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) keep up?
Occupational Lung Disease and Underlying Medical Conditions
Let's look at one particular problem. Many former industrial workers that were repeatedly exposed to asbestos have lung cancer. In the worst scenarios, this condition ultimately results in what is indicated in the death certificate as the underlying cause of death: Usually respiratory failure and aspiration.
"Under" means below or less than; the condition beneath the actual death. And "cause" refers to their condition before death, which is generally apparent. The apparent cause is that they were sick. But why? Was it because the sacs in their lungs took all they could take? What about before they were ill when they worked as stonemasons, roofers, boilermakers, or pipefitters? Was that a condition that contributed to their death?
Recently, the EPA made public its final risk evaluation for chrysotile asbestos. It found that workers suffered above-average risks in chemical production, the oil industry, and the automotive industry.
Trying to be thorough, for many industrial workers, "veterans" may also be lying under their prognosis as they were also exposed to asbestos while serving in the military.
The Connection Between Asbestos Exposure and Lung Cancer
Speaking of cause and effect, it's what people suffering from lung cancer and their families are looking for in cancer statistics, wealth inequality, and the disappearance of the working class. They suffer no shortage of effects, but for determining causes, they continue to connect the dots, drawing one line to another until a shape emerges.
Yet, it can still be challenging for people reeling from a lung cancer diagnosis to draw a straight line from their shipyard, factory, or mill to cancer. Some people worked in these settings and got cancer. Some people did not. Or not yet that they are aware of. There are long delays between asbestos exposures and cancer, sometimes too long to calculate, and each cancer comes with individual risk factors, symptoms, and causes.
Asbestos exposure can lead to the appearance of lung cancer in ten, thirty, or fifty years. Yet, linking asbestos exposure to lung cancer is not easy to do. Especially as many cancers are considered idiopathic, a Greek word meaning "of local origin”: "idio” (one's own) and “pathos” (suffering), that is not seemingly caused by something outside the body. An idiopathic diagnosis blames the body itself for its undoing.
At a 1964 conference on asbestos held by the New York Academy of Sciences, data presented showed that there was also the case of secondary exposure when workers came home with asbestos dust on their clothes that transferred to people who lived in the same house with them. It turned out asbestos can cling not only to someone's clothes but to their hair, skin, shoes, car and subsequently end up in their family's lungs, too.
For years, asbestos manufacturers knew about asbestos dangers and did nothing except lobbying the government against regulating it. Today scientists are sure: Asbestos causes harm. It's a known human carcinogen, and there's no safe level of exposure. That would seem enough to bring asbestos—banned in most developed countries except a few, a substance that ruined a generation of lives—to the end of the line. Yet, the U.S. continues to import and use it with no plan for stricter regulations in place.
The Help Needed to Connect the Dots
People lean on science for proof, and they sometimes turn to the law. In the U.S., the regulatory approach is, in general, innocent until the guilt is proven. This approach places the burden of proof on the individuals to show that toxic substances caused harm. For example, tort laws and regulations protect people with occupational lung cancer, but laws demand scientific precision and evidence of injury. The proof may seem no less elusive when facing the problems alone.
Yet because people unfamiliar with the legal system can't draw a straight line from exposure to their medical condition doesn't mean there is no line. People can be overwhelmed by the paperwork, deadlines, and legalese. These can adversely affect their decisions, leading them to make choices that may not be in their best interests.
It may very well seem like figuring out where they or a loved one was exposed to toxic substances—among them asbestos—is simply impossible. However, there are means of tracing exposure, for example identifying the products they worked with, tying those back to trust funds established by firms that have filed for bankruptcy, and connecting everything to specific industries. Professionals experienced in toxic exposure claims can provide individuals with the tools, resources, and support to determine the time and place of exposure.
It can seem daunting to navigate the court system to pursue an asbestos lung cancer lawsuit, especially if a person's life expectancy is a matter of months. However, it is possible to expedite or settle a claim before going to court to get the damages they deserve more quickly.
The legal system, although imperfect, provided compensation to large numbers of workers whose injuries were sufficiently severe to warrant litigation and could provide legal proof regarding negligence.
As a result, asbestos lawsuits are filed against non-bankrupt manufacturers, and asbestos claims are filed with bankruptcy trusts set up to compensate victims. And workers with asbestos diseases have recovered hundreds of billions of dollars through their claims.
About the author:
This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect that of WHN, this article was written by Miguel Leyva, the case manager at Atraxia Law, who manages operations related to toxic tort claims. Miguel helps clients in jurisdictions nationwide by handling the daily tasks associated with building cases for lung cancer patients to mitigate losses resulting from this disease related to toxic exposure.
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.
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