Asbestos exposure stretches back centuries and has been linked to a number of cancers, including mesothelioma, a rare and fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs. Malignant cancer caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers has likewise existed for many years, although it was not always called "mesothelioma".
Asbestos use dates as far back as 5,000 B.C. when it was mined in the areas in modern day countries such as Finland, Sweden and Greece. Praised for its fireproofing capabilities, asbestos as a term literally comes from the Greek word meaning "inextinguishable". Emperor Charlemagne, who ruled Western Europe from 768 to 814, is known for using a napkin made from asbestos fibers that he would purify by throwing into a fire. In 814, Charlemagne died from pleurisy – an inflammation of a membrane in the lungs.
While still considered rare, health effects occurring in connection to asbestos use gained attention in the 1700s. By the mid-1800s, asbestos was heavily used in products like insulation manufactured in the United States and Canada. More asbestos mines started opening across the world, with the first asbestos mine in North America established in 1878.
In the 1800s, the medical industry believed pleural tumors were metastatic cancers formed from other types of cancers. At this time, less than one case in every thousand was diagnosed as pleural or peritoneal carcinomas, making physicians especially reluctant to refer to it as a primary tumor.
Medical research soon discovered that the cancer could be found in the lymph nodes, leading to the incorrect theory that the cancer started in the lymphatic system and eventually spread to the lungs and abdomen. This theory was embraced until 1891, when an opposite notion was considered – that the cancer began in the lungs and abdomen and spread to the lymph nodes.
Progress was made in the 20th century as physicians and medical professionals started to accept evidence that pleural cancers could form on their own without any other type of primary tumor in the body. Also, researchers determined the primary location of the development of this type of cancer was the mesoderm. From this information, the name "mesothelioma" was coined in 1921.
The first asbestos-related death recorded in medical literature occurred in 1924 when a British woman died from asbestosis. Nellie Kershaw was only 12 years old when she first began working at an asbestos mill spinning raw asbestos fibers into yarn. She died at the age of 33.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the connection between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma became more evident. Additional studies were conducted that showed the correlation between asbestos exposure and asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma.
The most notable was the 1964 study released by Dr. Irving J. Selikoff , which clearly demonstrated that the mortality rate of workers exposed to asbestos was much higher compared to co-workers not exposed to asbestos.
Selikoff followed more than 1,000 workers from the Union Asbestos & Rubber Company facility in Patterson, New Jersey. These workers helped manufacture the asbestos insulation used for the U.S. Navy. He found these workers' mortality rate was 25 percent higher than normal and that the workers passed away from a variety of diseases linked to toxic exposures, including asbestosis, malignant mesothelioma and other cancers of the lungs, stomach, colon, rectal and colorectal. Selkikoff presented these later widely publicized findings at the "Biological Effects of Asbestos" conference, sponsored by the New York Academy of Science.
Individuals who have been harmed by asbestos exposure deserve to know their legal rights. Learn more about working with a mesothelioma lawyer by exploring more of Nolo's articles on the subject. From there, use Nolo's Lawyer Directory to find a mesothelioma lawyer who is right for you and your family.