Mesothelioma & Asbestos Exposure

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer affecting the mesothelium, or the protective lining around the organs. It most commonly affects the lining of the lungs (pleural mesothelioma) – the most common type – and abdomen (peritoneal). It can also rarely affect the lining around the heart (pericardial). There is no known cure for mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is associated with exposure to asbestos. Experts agree there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, whose microscopic mineral fibers may be inhaled or ingested. Asbestos may also cause other chronic diseases, including asbestosis, a severe scarring of the lungs.

lungs-1Statistics indicate 2,000-3,000 people will be diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma in the United States each year, and 10,000 Americans die from asbestos-related diseases.

The most common symptoms of mesothelioma are shortness of breath, cough and chest pain. Peritoneal mesothelioma (abdomen) may also present symptoms including abdominal pain, digestive disturbances such as vomiting, and a distended abdomen.

Pleural mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as pneumonia or another respiratory illness. There is usually a long latency period between when a person is exposed to asbestos and when symptoms develop, so unless it occurs to the meso patient to make the connection to asbestos exposure, doctors may not immediately think of it as a diagnosis.

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Asbestos Exposure

For many years, it was believed that mesothelioma was solely an illness of occupational exposure, affecting people who were exposed to asbestos over a long term on the job. These are still some of the most commonly injured.

However, recent information reveals a rising number of people who contracted mesothelioma from secondary exposure or from environmental exposure. While asbestos is not harmful if left undisturbed, when it is broken or crushed, it can release fibers that can be inhaled or ingested.

Although asbestos has been largely banned in the United States since the 1970s, it was for years widely used in products for home construction due to its strength and fire-retardant properties. It was commonly used in products such as insulation, vinyl flooring, roofing, shingles and sheet rock. Someone undertaking renovation of an older home or building needs to keep in mind that these materials may be present. Asbestos still is not completely banned in the U.S. so caution is advised even for newer structure.

asbestos-1Asbestos poses a hazard as a result of environmental disasters and man-made damage and destruction. For example, when the Twin Towers came down in New York City on September 11, they released hundreds of tons of finely pulverized asbestos into the atmosphere, along with a variety of other toxins. Hurricanes like Katrina and Rita, and Superstorm Sandy damaged and destroyed thousands of asbestos-containing homes and commercial structures.

As a mineral, asbestos can be found naturally in the environment as well. Scientists are unsure about the health risks of exposure to naturally occurring asbestos.

Who is at risk?

Anyone who is exposed to asbestos, even in tiny amounts for the smallest amount of time, is at risk. Experts agree there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Some of the highest risk categories include:

  • Construction workers – especially those undertaking demolition or renovation projects of older structures that likely were built with asbestos-containing materials
  • First responders – Heroic rescue workers like those who responded to the 9/11 tragedy, are often exposed to toxic substances. In particular, since the 1990s, studies have linked the firefighting profession to an increased risk of cancer, including mesothelioma
  • Ship builders – Asbestos was widely used in ships for fire protection and insulation. As a result, men and women who served in the U.S. Navy may also be at risk
  • Mechanics – Asbestos was used in the manufacture of brakes and brake pads
  • Mining and manufacturing – Asbestos is still not completely banned in the United States and may be imported and used in some manufacturing processes

Family members of those who were exposed to asbestos may also be at risk of secondary exposure. There are cases of individuals exposed to asbestos on a loved one’s clothing who have developed mesothelioma.