ranking in U.S. for mesothelioma & asbestosis deaths
Although Alabama has no history of mining asbestos, use of the fibrous mineral spanned multiple industries before it was recognized as a human carcinogen in the 1980s. Before then, it was common for industrial and manufacturing companies to use asbestos for a wide range of applications because of the mineral's heat control and insulation properties. Prior to government regulations on asbestos, most people were unaware that breathing it could result in mesothelioma and several other life threatening asbestos-related diseases.
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Asbestos also was prevalent among the building materials of residential homes and businesses before we were aware of the associated health risks. While in most cases asbestos building materials are harmless if left undisturbed, the fibers can become airborne once disturbed and significantly increase the likelihood of developing an asbestos-related disease in anyone exposed. This became a serious issue in the past decade when Alabama was devastated by several natural disasters. Damaged homes and buildings posed health threats to those exposed to airborne fibers, especially individuals involved in cleanup efforts.
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Workers in Alabama have been exposed to this dangerous industrial substance at an alarming rate. The use of asbestos was once prevalent in shipyards, power plants, mills and many other industrial facilities. Government buildings in Mobile and NASA facilities in Huntsville were constructed with asbestos, exposing unprotected workers to dangerous fibers.
In 2004, the Birmingham News printed a series of reports on the severity of asbestos problems in Alabama. One story detailed how Rock Wool Manufacturing, a cement manufacturer in Leeds, added asbestos to its products as a bonding agent. When unprotected workers handled the cement, they were exposed to the toxic substance. The company received more than 140,000 lawsuits from workers and their families as a result of the exposures.
A July, 2010 report in the Huntsville Times showed that workers also found asbestos during a renovation of the Von Braun Center. Brandi Quick, assistant director of the sports and entertainment facility, said that workers had located asbestos in four sections of the building. Crews reported finding asbestos in the ductwork, in the floor tiles and in some exterior panels.
On Aug. 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast as a Category Five storm with torrential rainfall and maximum sustained winds of 160 miles per hour. Upon making landfall in greater New Orleans early the next day, Katrina downgraded to Category Four and slowly advanced eastward towards the Alabama/Florida border with steady winds of 155 miles per hour. With a diameter of nearly 200 miles, Katrina’s winds devastated innumerable homes and businesses throughout Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
The storm caused irreparable damage to many buildings and residential homes that were subsequently torn down. Both during the storm and in the demolitions that followed, Katrina’s pervasive winds and flooding resulted in widespread asbestos exposure across the Gulf Coast. When damaged, older buildings with asbestos-containing materials released fibers into the air putting thousands of people at risk for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
The Tuscaloosa Tornadoes of April 2011 resulted in similar health risks. Damage from the deadly tornadoes in the college town exposed residents to asbestos products that had lain dormant for more than 50 years when asbestos use was at an all-time high. The devastating tornado that tore through the city of Tuscaloosa was one of the largest documented incidences of asbestos exposure. More than 6,000 structures took damage from the F-4 tornado, most of them containing insulation and other materials laced with asbestos. Although many of the state and federal facilities affected by the tornado damage fell under strict regulations for asbestos removal and disposal, the single-family dwellings containing asbestos did not fall under the same guidelines.
Alabama state law makes it difficult for mesothelioma patients or surviving family members to file claims against the companies responsible for asbestos exposure. Historically, Alabama enforced a “last exposure rule” that placed a one-year statute of limitations on people filing asbestos lawsuits.
Victims of asbestos exposure could only file a claim within one year of their last exposure, regardless of when they were diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease. This put many victims of asbestos exposure in a Catch-22 because mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases often take 20 to 50 years to develop after the first exposure to asbestos.
Twenty-one Alabama steelworkers won a $115.6 million judgement in 1998 against a steel mill that exposed them to asbestos. The case was filed in Texas so that Alabama’s statute of limitations would not apply. A Brazoria County jury awarded the verdict after finding the Carborundum Co. “acted with gross negligence and malice” and exposed the workers to harmful amounts of asbestos. The company manufactured an asbestos-containing grinding wheel used to cut pipes at a U.S. Steel mill in Birmingham. The workers did not wear masks when using the grinding wheel and inhaled asbestos fibers through dust that was created. The award, which came after only 30 minutes of deliberation, was $15.6 million in actual damages and $100 million in punitive damages.
In May 1980, Alabama modified the “last exposure rule” for asbestos victims and established a more reasonable “discovery rule” for these cases. While the one year statute of limitations still applies to claims where the last exposure to asbestos occurred before 1979, the statute of limitations for any exposures after May 17, 1980, begins when victims discover they have an asbestos-related disease.
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