Concerning the long latency period in asbestos exposure
by E. J. Wagner

“Oliver Wendell Holmes said he didn't see why tort law had to be complicated. He said even a dog knew when he'd been kicked. Well, today, sometimes the dog doesn't find out he's been kicked for thirty years. ...” - Irving J. Selikoff. M. D.

In ancient times, fabric woven with asbestos was used for shrouds at the cremation of kings. The textiles’ seemingly magical ability to resist fire made it a symbol of eternal life, a shield against dissolution. It is ironic that these indestructible properties make asbestos a potential threat to public health.

“Asbestos” is a general term for a group of fibrous minerals which are very flexible, heat resistant, and tensile. These qualities have made asbestos a common component of everyday products. Items in which it is frequently found include textiles, plastics, brake linings, commercial paper maché, theatre curtains, insulation and fire proofing materials, rope, cord, pipes, wallboard, and paint.

Current evidence suggests that asbestos can be safe when tightly bound to other materials so that it cannot become airborne. Potential hazards arise when invisible asbestos particles float freely in the air where they may be inhaled or where they contaminate water. People exposed to these particles because of their occupation or way of life show an increased rate of lung and other diseases, both malignant and benign.

The latency period between exposure and evidence of disease varies between ten to more than thirty years. Because of this, the source of exposure may be forgotten by the victim, even if he or she was originally aware of the proximity of asbestos at his work place or living quarters.

Aside from direct occupational hazards, people may be exposed to dangerous forms of asbestos in the general atmosphere. In the March 1981 issue of the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, Drs. Theodore Ehrenreich and Irving J. Selikoff pointed out that between 1960 and 1969 alone, more than 40,000 tons of fire proofing material containing 10-20% asbestos were sprayed annually on high rise buildings. Much of this material is loose and friable.

Family members of asbestos workers may be exposed to disease simply by handling the dust-laden clothing of the worker. The risk of serious illness is very much increased in asbestos-exposed individuals who smoke.

Our knowledge of disease and fatalities caused by environmental contamination is just beginning to grow. The typically long latency period, the mobility of the population, and the lack of records all have made sound conclusions difficult to reach. Careful and complete work histories and post mortem examinations are vital in cases where the possibility of community hazard exists. Because of the prevalence of asbestos in our lives, it is important to understand as fully as possible when it is implicated in our deaths.

© 1985 E. J. Wagner

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