Asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring silicate minerals, which have been mined and used as a building material for more than 4,000 years.
The ancients recognized several desirable properties, especially resistance to fire, but also recorded serious and fatal health effects among miners who suffered heavy exposure.
Large scale mining of asbestos began during the Industrial Revolution when heat insulation and sound absorption became increasingly important.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the British medical community raised concerns over the high number of early deaths and lung disease among asbestos miners and textile workers.
Following the first recorded death by asbestosis in 1924, Parliament commissioned an inquiry into the effects of asbestos dust, which led to asbestos regulations in 1931, the same year that the term mesothelioma first appeared in the medical literature.
It took the United States 20 years to pass similar legislation: The Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act was the first federal law regulating the safe handling of asbestos, and only applied to U.S. government contractors doing more than $10,000 worth of business.
The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration adopted the Walsh-Healey standards in 1971.
Although asbestos was regulated, it was still widely used in many industries, especially manufacturing and construction.
But by the late 1970s, the numbers of U.S. workers in asbestos-related industries suffering from severe and fatal illnesses, including mesothelioma, could no longer be ignored.
Evidence came to light suggesting that industry officials had covered up known health effects for decades.
The United States never completely banned asbestos. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a ban, which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned, so products in the United States can still legally contain asbestos.
Asbestos-related litigation began in the late 1980s as workers sought compensation for illnesses related to exposure in the workplace.
As a result, many companies declared bankruptcy and were required to create trusts for future asbestos claims.
Because mesothelioma often has a very long latency period, from 10 to 40 years, new asbestos cases continue to be filed as aging workers exhibit symptoms that lead to new diagnoses.
Workers in the construction sector are vulnerable to asbestos exposure when they demolish or refurbish older structures built with asbestos-laden materials.
This risk was made especially clear after the destruction of the World Trade Center, when a toxic mix of smoldering materials, including asbestos, caused severe respiratory illnesses for hundreds of rescue and recovery workers laboring at Ground Zero.