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Asbestos Insulation and its Dangers in Your Home

asbestos insulationAsbestos insulation was used extensively in American homes up until the 1970s. That’s because asbestos is a highly-effective and inexpensive fire-retardant material and thermal and acoustic insulator. It was popular because it could keep flames lit, heat in, cold out, sound clear, damp areas dry and cement strong. Unfortunately, it is also lethal and although no longer used, lingers in many older homes.

Where was asbestos insulation used in older homes?

The main areas of the house where asbestos insulation was used were basements, attics or roofs. In homes built prior to 1975, according to This Old House, asbestos is most commonly found as thermal insulation on basement boilers and pipes and as blown-in attic insulation.

As an acoustical or heat insulator, asbestos was often placed in, around or between steel beams, water and sewer pipes, ducts, high temperature gaskets, stovepipe rings, electrical wiring, vinyl and linoleum sheet flooring, floor backing, shingles, panels, partitions and acoustic tiles. It was also used in heaters, boilers, furnaces, incinerators, artificial fireplaces and barbecues.

When is asbestos insulation dangerous?

Asbestos insulation becomes dangerous when fragments break away and float in household air currents. This is because even a tiny amount is comprised of tens of thousands of microscopic fibers. Being so light, they adhere to clothing, household items or hair; in fact, almost every surface can harbor asbestos fibers. Once breathed in, however, asbestos cannot leave the lungs. The fibers remained trapped and can exist for up to 50 years. As the body attempts to attack and expel them, disease-producing conditions are created. Some are a response to foreign particles–such as asbestosis–while others are actually carcinogenic causing lung cancer and mesothelioma.

What should I do if I have asbestos insulation?

DO NOT DISTURB IT! Any disturbance could potentially release asbestos fibers into the air. If you need to go in your attic and it contains asbestos insulation, you should limit the number of trips you make and shorten the length of those trips in order to help limit your potential exposure.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that you:

  • Leave asbestos insulation undisturbed in your attic or in your walls.
  • Do not store boxes or other items in your attic if it contains abestos insulation.
  • Do not allow children to play in an attic with asbestos insulation.
  • Do not attempt to remove the insulation yourself.
  • Hire a professional asbestos contractor if you plan to remodel or conduct renovations that would disturb the asbestos insulation in your attic or walls to make sure the material is safely handled and/or removed.

How Much Asbestos Exposure is Dangerous?

asbestos exposureBecause of my expertise in asbestos, I am often asked, “How much asbestos exposure is safe?”

The short answer is none. No amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe.

Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos gets an asbestos-related disease. Similarly not everyone who smokes cigarettes gets lung cancer or emphysema. People sometimes say, “Oh my Aunt Mary or Uncle Joe smoked two packs a day and lived to a hundred.” That very well may be but the odds are highly against it. Are you willing to take that chance and risk your life that you are one of the very few not vulnerable? I hope not.

Although asbestos exposure does not guarantee that you will get sick, anyone exposed to asbestos has a higher risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. These include asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma – all require very extensive medical treatment and are unlikely to be cured.

Even very small amounts of asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a relatively rare cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen. Although rare, mesothelioma is the most common form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure, according to the National Cancer Institute. We have had many cases of family members developing mesothelioma from asbestos dust a worker in the family unknowingly brought home on his or her clothes.

Unfortunately, you can’t tell when asbestos is in the air and damaging your lungs. Asbestos does not make you cough or sneeze. It will not make your skin or throat itch. Asbestos fibers get into the air when asbestos materials are damaged, disturbed or handled unsafely. When asbestos is crushed, it does not make ordinary dust. It breaks into microscopic fibers that are too small to see or feel.

Asbestos fibers are so small and light that they can stay airborne days after they were released into the environment. While these particles are airborne, anyone could unknowingly inhale them. Because the fibers are so tiny, they can travel deep into the lungs where they can remain for years without you knowing they’re there.

All asbestos diseases have a latency period – a gap between the time you breathe in asbestos and when you actually start to feel sick. It may take 10 to 40 years after asbestos exposure, for you to feel symptoms of asbestos-related disease.

If you think you have been exposed to asbestos, see your doctor about getting a chest x-ray or CAT scan. The x-ray cannot detect the asbestos fibers themselves, but can detect early signs of lung disease caused by asbestos.   And remember, there is no safe amount of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos Victim Wins a Landmark Case

asbestos victimAsbestos victim Robert Alan Speake was “in frail health and breathing with difficulty,” according to the December 1, 1981 article in the San Francisco Chronicle.   But he stood up for his day in court, a day that marked a major change in the tragic history of asbestos victims and the businesses and individuals who exploited their innocence for financial gain.

As ill as he was on that day, Speake stood up on behalf of not only himself but all asbestos victims. And standing with him there in Contra Costa County Superior Court on that day was me. I would go on to fight on behalf of asbestos victims for the next several decades – a fight I continue to this day. But on that day in 1981, we were breaking new legal ground.

I was helping to represent Speake in his lawsuit against the giant Johns-Manville Corp. family of companies which he blamed for his fatal illness.

Speake , 66 at the time, was an asbestos worker for 33 years at Johns-Manville’s Pittsburg plant. We maintained that the executives knew of the health hazards of working with asbestos as early as the 1930s but hid the information from their employees. Bob said they never told him anything and I believed him.

Speake, who had to take early retirement because of his declining health, was suffering from asbestosis, a disease of the lungs, caused by his work environment. Johns-Manville’s lawyers tried to blame the victim and claimed his illness was caused by smoking.

I didn’t buy that. The article quotes me as saying that Johns-Manville acted in “willful and conscious disregard” by never telling workers of the dangers.

“Bob Speake should have had the opportunity to say, I’m going to get out of here and get a safe job, before his health began to deteriorate,” I told the court.

I showed evidence revealing that the company had kept secret the results of X-rays and exams showing signs of asbestos-caused damage in Speake as early as the 1950s.

I sought not only lost pay for Speake, but also substantial punitive damages to make an example of Johns-Manville so others would be spared the fate that was Bob Speake’s.

We succeeded in making an example of Johns-Manville. Their name came to be synonymous with the scandal of asbestos exposure and callous disregard for human life. They went into bankruptcy several months later, right before our next group of mesothelioma lawsuits for their plant workers was set for trial. But we did not succeed in sparing others from Bob Speake’s fate. Greed never learns its lesson. And so we continue to fight on behalf of asbestos victims.

Landmark Case That Changed Asbestos Law

asbestos law

From San Francisco Chronicle July 4, 1980

Today as an asbestos victim, you can count on being able to sue those responsible.  If you are the survivor of a family member who died because of asbestos exposure, you also can count on being able to file a wrongful death suit.  The pioneering practice of asbestos law at Kazan Law helped make this possible.  We not only practice under existing asbestos litigation rules, we help create those rules.

When I first started my career as a personal injury attorney, asbestos law as we know it today did not exist. To commemorate Kazan Law’s 40th anniversary, we’ll take a look at one of my first cases against the Johns-Manville Company.  It was a landmark victory that changed asbestos law forever.

Reba Rudkin, the plaintiff in the case, had been dead for several months by the time the state Supreme Court made its landmark decision. Mr. Rudkin’s death was attributed to “lung cancer” at the time, caused by on-the-job asbestos exposure which also caused his asbestosis .

Mr. Rudkin had worked for 29 years at a now closed Johns-Manville plant in Pittsburg, CA where industrial products like asbestos cement boards and panels were made.

A San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article, aptly published on July 4 1980, a day after the court decision, notes:

According to Rudkin’s attorney, Steven Kazan, yesterday’s ruling was the first time a California court has permitted a worker to sue his employer for injury since 1917, except for minor cases of physical assault.

Yes, that ruling was a game changer.

In a 5 – 2 decision, the court said the alleged misconduct by Johns-Manville was flagrant enough to provide an exception to a state worker’s compensation law that had prevented workers from suing employers for work related diseases or injuries

Employers were immune then from injury lawsuits under the 1917 Worker’s Compensation Act because it said workers could only seek compensation through the labor department, not through injury lawsuits in the courts.

Using an approach that is now standard, we filed a civil lawsuit against Johns-Manville in 1974 (Rudkin v Johns Manville et al), arguing that the Worker’s Compensation Act should not shield the company and its executives from fraud and conspiracy charges.  With Mr. Rudkin suffering from the lung disease that would soon kill him, we sued Johns-Manville for fraud and conspiracy in inducing him to work in an environment they knew was dangerous.

In a deposition for the case, Johns-Manville’s former plant manager had testified that there was in fact a “hush hush” policy to suppress information about the health hazards of asbestos.

Justice Stanley Mosk, in the majority decision, ruled that a worker or his family could sue “for aggravation of the disease because of the employer’s fraudulent concealment.”

This established an exception to the workers compensation exclusive remedy rule, later codified in Section 3602(b)(2) of the California Labor Code. It also opened a pathway for hundreds of other sick and dying former employees  to seek justice from Johns-Manville and other big companies.

This case also determined that the family of a plaintiff who died during a pending court case had the right to continue the suit. This also was a very important ruling that has helped many families achieve justice and compensation from companies responsible for the death of their loved one.

1976 News Clip Highlights 1st Wave of Asbestos Lawsuits in the Bay Area

 

asbestos lawsuits

If you were playing a trivia game and were asked, “What company is the one most associated with asbestos lawsuits?” The answer of course, would be Johns Manville.

But there was a time not too long ago when not many people aside from employees and shareholders knew the name Johns Manville.  And asbestos lawsuits were almost unheard of.  Workers did not think they would ever stand a chance of prevailing against a big company and their attorneys if they even got their asbestos lawsuits to court.  So big companies could use workers up like Kleenex and outright lie to them about the lethal health consequences of asbestos exposure.

Then in the 1970s, things began to change.  Due in part to the social movements of the late 1960s like the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Environmental Movement, people began to feel they were empowered and had a voice. The first big wave of asbestos lawsuits began to emerge.

As we commemorate Kazan Law’s 40th anniversary this month, I came across a 1976 clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle about that first wave of asbestos lawsuits stemming from the Johns Manville plant in nearby Pittsburg, CA.  This was one of the first media stories about this landmark development.  I am proud to have been chosen as a young attorney to be on that case and interviewed for the article.

Workers at the Johns Manville plant were suing a former company physician on the grounds that he deliberately withheld information from the workers that they had asbestosis.   Here’s what I said to the reporter:

“We contend that the doctor was negligent and the company submitted the men to deliberate exposure,” said attorney Steven Kazan.”

“They went for years without telling the guys they had lung problems developing so they could be treated and their exposure stopped,” Kazan said bitterly.

This was my first brush with asbestos lawsuits, an area of law that was to become my life’s work. I recall feeling outraged at the time that anyone would violate all standards of human decency by causing the deaths of other humans for profit.  I filed my first Johns Manville case in 1974 and now 40 years later, I still feel the same way.

Asbestos Exposure Risk Places Construction Work #2 Among “The 5 Jobs Most Likely to Make You Sick”

asbestos exposureAsbestos exposure often is thought of as something from the past. The average age for a diagnosed victim of mesothelioma, the malignant lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure, is 60 years old. And for those diagnosed with mesothelioma, their asbestos exposure did occur in the past because asbestos symptoms do not show up for 20 to 50 years afterwards.

But the truth is asbestos exposure continues to be a serious problem. Because of asbestos exposure, Men’s Health magazine, in a new article reprinted on the Fox News website, rated construction work as second among “The 5 Jobs Most Likely to Make You Sick”:

#2: Construction workers

“Falling objects and machines that turn digits into stumps aren’t the only on-site dangers. Roughly 1.3 million construction workers are currently exposed to asbestos, according to the American Lung Association. Small fibers of asbestos build up in your lungs over time, causing scarring that can stiffen your breathers–a condition called asbestosis. Asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma–a fatal cancer also caused by asbestos–can take decades to develop after you’ve been exposed to the toxin. If you’ve worked in construction, talk to your doctor about whether you should receive a lung cancer screening, which can also detect these conditions”.

Buildings and homes all over the US still contain hazardous asbestos materials. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, these are the construction materials that contain asbestos:

  • Steam pipes, boilers, and furnace ducts insulated with an asbestos blanket or asbestos paper tape. These materials may release asbestos fibers if damaged, repaired, or removed improperly.
  • Resilient floor tiles (vinyl asbestos, asphalt, and rubber), the backing on vinyl sheet flooring, and adhesives used for installing floor tile. Sanding tiles can release fibers. So may scraping or sanding the backing of sheet flooring during removal.
  • Cement sheet, millboard, and paper used as insulation around furnaces and wood-burning stoves. Repairing or removing appliances may release asbestos fibers. So may cutting, tearing, sanding, drilling, or sawing insulation.
  • Door gaskets in furnaces, wood stoves, and coal stoves. Worn seals can release asbestos fibers during use.
  • Soundproofing or decorative material sprayed on walls and ceilings. Loose, crumbly, or water-damaged material may release fibers. So will sanding, drilling, or scraping the material.
  • Patching and joint compounds for walls and ceilings, and textured paints. Sanding, scraping, or drilling these surfaces may release asbestos.
  • Asbestos cement roofing, shingles, and siding. These products are likely to release asbestos fibers if sawed, drilled, or cut.
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