Mesothelioma Awareness – Part 1: Understanding The Relationship Between Asbestos and Cancer

Asbestos // August 24, 2016

In a little more than a month, on September 26, 2016, the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center will be participating in Mesothelioma Awareness Day. As part of the lead-up to the day, we are posting a series of articles about various aspects of mesothelioma. We hope you will share these articles with family, friends, co-workers, and others who may not be aware of this deadly form of cancer.

As rare of a disease as mesothelioma is, one of the first questions a person asks after being diagnosed is: How did I get it?

In the vast majority of cases, there is one simple answer: Asbestos.

How Asbestos and Mesothelioma Became Linked

The link between asbestos and cancer has a long and sordid history. In addition to being aware of the “miraculous” fire-resistant properties of this natural, fibrous material, the Ancient Greeks also knew that it could cause deadly respiratory problems and deadly tumors. Old texts tell the stories of slaves who weaved asbestos cloth developing sickness of the lungs.

However, it wasn’t until modern times that the scientific link between asbestos and cancer was confirmed. The industrial revolution led to higher concentrations of people being brought into contact with asbestos, both in the workplace – factories, mines, shipyards, and so on – as well as in homes, schools, and various public buildings. As exposure to asbestos grew, so did the incidence of sickness caused by it.

The first confirmed medical case of an asbestos-related death came 110 years ago, when an English doctor published the discovery of “spicules of asbestos” in the lungs of a young woman who had died of pulmonary fibrosis – a condition that causes the tissues of the lungs to become fibrous. The woman, a factory worker in the asbestos industry, died of the disease, which the English doctor named “asbestosis.”

Over the next several decades, doctors and researchers tried to better understand the link between asbestos and lung disease. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s when Dr. Irving Selikoff was able to document the link between asbestos and a form of cancer that developed in the mesothelium, a dual layer of thin tissue that surrounds certain areas of the body, including the lungs, the abdomen, and the heart cavity. The work Dr. Selikoff did was critical in helping us better understand the diseases that industrial workers faced as a part of their everyday jobs. It also led the way to labor and environmental reforms, including the creation of both the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dealing with Asbestos Today

One of the biggest misconceptions about asbestos today is that it has been banned. However, that is not the case. While the EPA did attempt to ban the dangerous carcinogen in the late 1980s, that ban was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court.

One place where large amounts of asbestos still exists is in building materials. Asbestos was used in construction products for well over a hundred years, due to its fire-resistant properties. It was most heavily used around the middle of last century, and experts widely agree that most buildings built before the 1980s probably contain asbestos in some form or another.

Asbestos can also be found in a variety of products, especially older appliance and gear. While many of these items may have been discarded or remain largely disused today, older tools and devices could contain asbestos. The scary part is that the individual items might not even contain an asbestos warning, since when they were created, asbestos might not have been considered harmful.

Given that asbestos is all over the place, even today when we know how detrimental it is to our health, it is good to be on the lookout. Knowing where to find asbestos can prevent exposure, which could ultimately save you and your family from developing mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease in the future.

Doing home repairs? Asbestos could be in your insulation, floor tiles, roof tiles, decorative wall textures, and even the caulk around your windows, bathtub, or sink.

Cleaning out your attic? Check old decorations, appliances, and devices, especially if they are prone to getting hot. Even things like old ironing board covers or oven gloves could contain asbestos.

Construction at school, work, or elsewhere? If the building is more than 25 years old, check with officials to make sure the appropriate asbestos remediation precautions are being taken. There are specific laws that need to be followed, and most states require certified asbestos inspectors and contractors to handle asbestos abatement.

When It Comes to Asbestos, Assume the Worst

As the EPA has stated, there is absolutely NO safe level of asbestos exposure. Even a small amount inhaled could lead to mesothelioma – a disease with an extremely poor prognosis. While only a small number of individuals are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year (about 3,000 annually in the U.S.), that number has been growing and is expected to increase through at least 2020.

Unfortunately, because mesothelioma has such a long latency period, you may not even know that you are sick until decades after your initial exposure. Given how deadly of a disease mesothelioma is, the best policy is to be extremely careful if you discover asbestos in your house, in a product you own, or even in another building where you are visiting. Wear protective gear, and call in a professional if you are doing repairs, remodeling, or any kind of demolition.

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to get updates about mesothelioma, and come back next week for the next part in our series on mesothelioma awareness leading up to Mesothelioma Awareness Day on September 26.