Ready for some more bad news about asbestos? Apparently, asbestos exposure poisoning is starting to strike people down at an earlier age. Why this is happening is unclear.

“An increasing number of patients suffering from asbestos-related diseases are now younger than in previous reports,” reads a May 9, 2007 press release from the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). “Case reports from the past three years reveal a new median age of 51.”

This is a dramatic drop since the mid-1980s, when the median age of someone with asbestos-related disease was 70, according to the ADAO.

Based in Redondo Beach, CA, the ADAO serves as a lobby group for people poisoned by asbestos, a material once commonly used in construction. Prior to the 1970s, many homes were built with asbestos insulation. A fire-resistant substance, asbestos was also used to make shingles, tiles, firebricks (put around boilers and furnaces as a safety precaution), cables, brake linings, etc.

“From the 1930s to the early 1970s, there was extensive industrial use of asbestos in the workplace,” reads a 2006 position paper on asbestos-related lawsuits, published by the American Bar Association. “Some 27 million U.S. workers in high-risk industries and occupations were exposed to asbestos between 1940 and 1979.”

Asbestos fell out of favor as a construction material when doctors realized it made people sick. It was discovered that handling asbestos or living in an asbestos-insulated house could trigger several unpleasant diseases. These include peritoneal mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the abdomen) and pleural mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs). The only known cause of these types of mesothelioma in North America is exposure to asbestos. People diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma face a life expectancy of less than two years.

Cancer isn’t the only disease associated with asbestos. Inhaling asbestos particles can scar your lungs, and result in a condition called pulmonary asbestosis. If these particles stick around in your lungs for a length of time, they can end up damaging your alveoli, tiny structures that distribute oxygen to blood vessels.

People with pulmonary asbestosis suffer from shortness of breath, fatigue, heart problems and constant coughing. Not only is there no cure for pulmonary asbestosis, the disease isn’t even treatable. In the best-case scenario people stricken with pulmonary asbestosis end up attached to an oxygen tank. In the worst-case scenario, they die.

In a press release from late April 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that asbestos kills 90,000 people annually around the globe.

“Asbestos is still the number one carcinogen in the world of work and causes 54% of all deaths from occupational cancer,” reads an ADAO press release from late April 2007.

Fortunately, people are becoming alert to the dangers of asbestos. Thanks in part to prodding from the ADAO, the U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution designating the first week of April 2007 as “National Asbestos Awareness Week”.

In addition, lawsuits are flying: the ABA reports that 50-75,000 asbestos-related lawsuits are filed on an annual basis in the U.S.

This flood of asbestos litigation isn’t likely recede any time soon; as ADAO notes, asbestos-related diseases can sometimes lay dormant for decades. Which means that a worker that handled asbestos 30 years ago or someone who lived in an asbestos-laden house, might only now be coming down with symptoms of asbestos-related disease.

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