Risks & Rights of Asbestos Exposure

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is an odorless, tasteless mineral fiber that occurs naturally in rock and soil. Asbestos has been mined by hand for centuries. Workers chip away at minerals such as talc, vermiculite, or serpentine rock to extract deposits of asbestos found inside.

For over a century, asbestos has been used in manufactured goods and building materials across many industries, valued for being lightweight, strong, heat-resistant, and inexpensive. However, when products made with asbestos are disturbed, whether from installation, cleaning, repair, or removal, millions of undetectable asbestos fibers can be released into the air. The asbestos fibers have no smell, no taste, and are invisible to the naked eye, making them all-the-more dangerous. Individual asbestos fibers are so incredibly small — measured in microns — that they easily slip past our natural bodily defenses and when inhaled or swallowed, they can become lodged in the organs and other soft tissues, leading to serious health complications and even death.


Between the 1950s and the 1980s, nearly every home, school, and workplace across every state contained some sort of asbestos material. Because asbestos fibers are flexible, lightweight, strong, and naturally heat resistant, it was commonly used as insulation, or to strengthen other materials like brick, cement, tile, concrete and cinder blocks.
This partial list of asbestos-containing products reveals how widespread asbestos use and exposure has been:

  • Refractory Products: firebrick, refractory cement
  • Raw Fibers: Asbestos “shorts”, talc, vermiculite
  • Mechanical Products (and thermal pipe and block insulation associated with them): boilers, compressors, furnaces, tanks, turbines, vessels
  • Home and Construction Materials: tile and thinset mortars, drywall muds/joint compounds, plaster, roofing felts and cements, flooring, insulation
  • Friction Materials: brakes, clutches, gaskets
  • Packing and Gasket Materials

The Known Dangers of Asbestos

After accumulating decades of definitive evidence that asbestos exposure can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, the U.S. tried to fully ban the material in the 1980s. More than 60 other countries did just that, including Canada, formerly the largest exporter of asbestos to the U.S. Industries have known about these dangers since the 1930s. Asbestos lung cancer research and evidence has been known since the 1940s, and mesothelioma knowledge has been collected since the 1960s. However, due to corporate interests prevailing over workers’ safety, the government failed to enact a ban, putting families and workers at risk to this day.

From homes, workplaces, and schools, in addition to the asbestos contained inside thousands of products sold in the U.S., many people have been and continue to be exposed to asbestos. In the U.S. alone, asbestos causes tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths each year. People have not only suffered from illnesses, but also loss of income and have faced the threat of personal bankruptcy due to devastating medical costs — all while trying to battle a potentially life-ending disease.

Exposure Risks for Bricklayers

At highest risk for first-hand asbestos exposure are those who worked directly with or alongside asbestos-containing materials.

Bricklayers who worked inside power plants, chemical and petroleum refineries, steel mills, foundries, shipyards, and other industrial manufacturing have likely been exposed to asbestos contained within equipment and the buildings themselves.

Activities such as cutting and laying mortared bricks, mixing mortar, repairing walls with asbestos insulation, installing or repairing chimneys, working on boilers or furnaces, or remodeling older buildings, have also exposed bricklayers to asbestos. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always a common practice for bricklayers to wear masks or respirators. Even when masks were available and used, mask manufacturers were responsible for producing and distributing many defective masks.

Second-hand asbestos exposure could happen to anyone working or passing through a site where asbestos was present, or who came in contact with workers carrying asbestos fibers on their clothes, skin, hair, or personal belongings — this often includes exposure to spouses, children, and grandchildren. We know today that even the smallest amount of exposure increases the chances of developing asbestos related diseases. Unfortunately, all too many spouses and children of craftworkers are now developing mesothelioma, the signature disease related to asbestos exposures.

Asbestos Related Diseases

Asbestos exposure can cause a number of serious cancers, including lung cancer (even in smokers), mesothelioma, esophageal cancer, and colorectal cancer. In addition, it can cause a chronic lung disease called asbestos, which includes scarring of the lung tissue and chronic shortness of breath, and in the most severe cases, can lead to death.

Asbestos lung cancer and mesothelioma are especially aggressive forms of cancer that typically develop several years after exposure to asbestos. Asbestos lung cancer appears as tumors inside the lung tissue, which restrict the flow of oxygen into the bloodstream, while mesothelioma develops on the lung’s outer lining, rigidly encasing the lung and causing painful, restricted breathing. While medical science has developed potential treatments for lung cancer, they are costly (ranging into the hundreds of thousands of dollars), cause significant side effects, and often times only prolong cancer victims’ lives a short while. Unfortunately, there are even fewer effective treatment options for mesothelioma. The disease progresses quickly, giving those diagnosed a typical survival rate of 13 months or less after diagnosis.

While we all know smoking may cause lung cancer, most don’t realize that being exposed to asbestos is just as likely to cause lung cancer, and if both factors are considered, the risk of developing lung cancer is upwards of 50 times greater. With very few exceptions, asbestos is the only external factor known to cause mesothelioma.


It can take anywhere between 10 and 50-plus years from first exposure to asbestos before symptoms of cancer or mesothelioma occur, and these symptoms can be mistaken for other common ailments. Individuals may initially experience shortness of breath, chest or lower back pain, chronic coughing, difficulty swallowing, and fluid around the lungs. Oftentimes, individuals diagnosed with these cancers were otherwise healthy and living active lifestyles, hunting, fishing, traveling, and exercising regularly before a simple aching pain led to the discovery of a potentially life-threatening cancer diagnosis. Routine checkups, x-rays, and discussions with your physicians regarding your past exposure to asbestos is the best way to get the upper hand on identifying an early diagnosis and starting to battle cancer sooner rather than later.


Lung cancer tumors can be detected with chest x-ray, CT scan, biopsy, or ultrasound. Doctors then look for the presence of cancer cells to confirm a diagnosis. A biopsy is the gold standard for diagnosis of these cancers.

Four kinds of mesothelioma are currently diagnosed using various scans and biopsies. They can occur in the lungs (pleural) and abdomen (peritoneal), and in rare cases, the heart (pericardial) and testicles (testicular).

While mesothelioma is considered rare, all forms are fast spreading and aggressive, often diagnosed during advanced stages.

While many of the treatments for mesothelioma and lung, colon, and esophageal cancers are similar, their effectiveness is significantly different. Any of these cancers can be treated with everything from radiation treatments, chemotherapy, gene therapy, and/or surgery to excise or cut out the cancerous tumors. Surgical advances mean that removing a part of a lung-cancer-victim’s lung or a tumor in the colon equal a far greater recovery rate, speed of recovery, and potential for removing the cancerous tumor. However, for mesothelioma, surgical options are far more radical, expensive, require greater recovery times, and have far less effectiveness in actually removing the cancer. Depending on the severity of an individual’s asbestos diagnosis, treatment for asbestos can help effectively alleviate some of the symptoms through inhalers but do not “cure” the asbestos, which can become progressively worse over time.

How Can My Union Help?

Historically, labor unions have successfully supported and protected workers’ rights when it comes to health and safety hazards like asbestos exposure. Among the first to recognize that corporations were hiding the dangers of asbestos from workers and the public, unions have taken it upon themselves to keep people informed and fight for compensation for injuries and illnesses. Unions also maintain detailed member records and can help individuals seeking information for their cases.

IUBAC can provide information, resources, and other assistance, should you believe you have been exposed to asbestos or find yourself diagnosed with an asbestos related illness. Whether you are a current or retired member, you may be able to receive assistance and support.

Contact us to learn more about how we can also help you:

  • Get medical screenings for asbestos related injuries or illnesses, possibly at your job site
  • Better understand your worker rights to safety
  • Find legal representation or additional case witnesses
  • Understand your rights to insurance or benefit claims to help cover any such illnesses
  • Understand your legal rights to financial compensation from possible lawsuits, asbestos bankruptcy trusts, and other claims that can help you cover medical bills, lost wages, or the support lost from the death of a loved one
  • Ensure EPA and/or OSHA limits on asbestos exposure at your workplace are enforced


When a union member files an asbestos injury or illness claim, attorneys and union members will often call fellow members for help and additional information. It’s important that members are willing to help each other verify work histories and union records by sharing what information they have. In the fight against major corporations and powerful insurance companies who have access to big data and advanced information technology, union brotherhood is the key to getting justice and fair compensation for members and their families.

Should I Consider Legal Action?

Companies have known about the dangers and toxicity of asbestos since the 1930s, and yet they continued to manufacture and distribute hazardous products, or they failed to appropriately notify people of the risks. Many companies also fought to overturn EPA rules banning the import and use of asbestos, and they are still using their insurance companies to make it extremely difficult for people to file lawsuits for damages and devastation caused by asbestos exposure.
Holding asbestos companies and their insurers responsible for their negligence and harm can be accomplished with the advocacy of responsible, experienced, and dedicated asbestos lawyers. If you were exposed to asbestos and suffered illness as a result, even if you are also a smoker, you have the right to make a claim for compensation. Smoking combined with asbestos exposure makes it far more likely a person will develop lung cancer or mesothelioma, but smoking does not disqualify you from taking legal action for illness or injury.

Your legacy and beneficiaries deserve both justice and freedom from overwhelming debt. You and your family may be able to recover compensation for medical bills, cost of medications, lost wages, lost work time, surgical scars or disfigurement, pain and suffering from the disease and treatments, and emotional damages like loss of intimacy with your spouse or loss of companionship with other family members.

If you have lost a loved one to asbestos illness or injury, you may have the right to a wrongful death claim for that person and may be able to recover compensation for funeral costs, past medical care, and pain and suffering. In some instances, you may even be awarded punitive damages, which serve to punish and deter the asbestos companies that injured you.


There are many kinds of legal help available to you, depending on your specific situation. Civil litigation is the process of having trusted attorneys file your claim in court. Experienced asbestos attorneys have worked for years and decades on behalf of asbestos victims to accumulate information that will help you determine which parties could be ultimately responsible for your asbestos exposure and help you navigate the legal process of going to court. While thousands and thousands of asbestos cases are filed each year across the nation, only a very small percentage (<1%) ever actually get presented to a jury because most asbestos defendants will settle along the way.

There is also an option of settling with an asbestos bankruptcy trust, which is a trust fund specifically created by companies that filed for bankruptcy to settle future legal claims. These trusts are designed to provide victims’ compensation for asbestos related illnesses and injuries. Historically, 99.5% of asbestos cases are settled before they even go to a trial, and often the only qualifying factor for making a bankruptcy trust claim is having worked at a site that exposed people to asbestos.

In some cases, VA claims can be pursued for disability settlements. In other cases, other particularized claims like Jones Act (maritime), FELA (railroad), or state workers’ compensation claims may be pursued that will result in significant recovery for asbestos victims and their families. When selecting attorneys to guide you through either process, you may want to consider their:

  • National reputation and specialization in asbestos cases
  • Track record of verdicts and settlements
  • Ability and willingness to handle your case from start to finish in the best location for your case
  • Engagement in your case from partners and staff
  • Firms that have nurse consultants, client liaisons or other staff to help you navigate the daunting tasks of balancing medical treatment, bills, side effects, family issues, and all the other challenges you may find yourself facing.
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What Can I Do Now?

Experiencing asbestos exposure or symptoms of asbestos related illness or injury can feel overwhelming. But there are resources and assistance available to you and your family. Often, you will need to provide some work and health information in order to begin inquiries or investigations. Use this checklist to ensure you have everything ready when you or your loved ones need it.

Even if you don’t think you’ve been exposed to asbestos, proactively collecting the items on this checklist is still a wise idea, given how quickly asbestos related diseases can progress. Before many know it, they’re not only suffering from a deadly disease, they’re suffering the very real effect from chemotherapy called “chemo brain” that often times may affect their ability to remember and think clearly. An ounce of preparation goes a long way to making your claims and case the best they can be. If you have questions, you should reach out to us and we’ll get you in touch with the best resources we can.


This will help your legal team’s investigation into how and where you were exposed to asbestos. Of course, much of this may date back 30, 40 or 50 years ago, so it’s a process that may take time. Come back to it when you can and when details come back to you. Write down, the best you can, here and there, come back to the worksheets again, put it together on the included sheets. If possible, include years, co-workers/supervisors, employers, other contractors, short descriptors of the jobs/sites. Every bit is one more piece of the puzzle of your asbestos exposures. And, as it turns out, you may be the one helping out your union brother.


While much of what you may have done over your lifetime was through the union, there are many other ways folks are exposed to asbestos: Did you work in another trade at some point? Did you have a different career? Did you serve in the US Navy? Did you do your own home remodeling projects? Did you do side work during slowdowns or times of unemployment? Did you do your own automotive work? And don’t hesitate to ask us for help.


These will help quickly confirm your work history in detail. Click on the links below for the forms to help you get started:

 You can request them yourself or we can have someone help you with that process, especially Social Security Records, which may take some time.


Having your complete medical history and records helps show your progression of symptoms and conditions. Contact the IUBAC or your doctor to begin collecting this information. This form will help you get started.

  • American Association for Justice
  • MATA
  • The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis

Asbestos Resources


The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF) is a nonprofit charity organization that funds research to improve mesothelioma treatment options; provide treatment support and education for patients and their families; and advocates for federal funding of research.


LUNGevity funds scientific research focused on early detection and therapeutics to help people live better with lung cancer and improve the survival rate.


SWMW Law is a full-service legal team with practice areas in mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer. We have decades of experience working with unions, including bricklayers and tilesetters, and have recovered more than $750 million for our clients. We’re happy to help you understand your legal rights and options, as well as fill out important documents and authorization forms.


The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers actively fights to improve its members’ quality of life on and off the job through access to fair wages, good benefits, safe working conditions, and solidarity among members. For more information about the benefits and essential care management programs that are available to members through the BAC International Health Fund, visit their website. BAC also provides confidential telephone crisis intervention, referral and information services to BAC members and their families in the U.S. and Canada through its Member Assistance Program (“MAP”). To learn more about the resources MAP offers or to contact its licensed mental health professionals, visit MAP on the web.


In addition to getting regular checkups, your primary care doctor can answer questions about any symptoms of asbestos exposure you may be experiencing. Be sure to tell your doctor about any asbestos exposure or symptoms.

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