Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer affecting the lungs, abdomen, or thoracic cavity. It’s rare, and often leads to the patient’s untimely death. Millions of people have come into contact with one of its only known causes – asbestos, although not all will develop mesothelioma.
Asbestos is a natural mineral found in underground deposits throughout the world. The fibers from the mineral are friable, which means they crumble easily when touched, and can be released into the air. Once airborne, people can inhale or ingest asbestos. These fibers irritate different sites of the body, and over a long period of time, may create excess inflammation, causing healthy cells to mutate into malignant mesothelioma cells and form tumors.
Exposure to asbestos is not uncommon. Throughout the 1900s, the United States used asbestos in multiple ways. Schools, homes, vehicles, office buildings, military barracks, and equipment were all insulated with asbestos. New construction used the substance in roof shingles on residential homes up until 2004.
Asbestos was cheap, and fire-resistant, making it the perfect insulation material. For decades, the U.S. mined, produced, and consumed this durable mineral. As a result, millions of people were exposed and still face the risk of exposure today.
Key Risk Factors for Mesothelioma
Some people have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma than others. A majority of patients diagnosed with mesothelioma experienced exposure to asbestos in some form. However, there are several risk factors – other than asbestos exposure – that may increase the chances of developing mesothelioma.
Smoking itself does not increase the risk of developing mesothelioma. However, the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure may increase the risk for certain types of cancer in the lungs, including mesothelioma. Smoking can weaken the lungs and reduce the body’s ability to fight cancer.
While cancer patients may receive radiation as treatment, there are some cases in which radiation can accelerate the development of mesothelioma. However, radiation can be a useful treatment to reduce the size of tumors when used properly.
A pre-existing gene mutation in about 1% of people, called BAP1, may be a risk factor. A few studies found certain patients have a higher chance of developing certain cancers, including mesothelioma, if their biological parents passed the BAP1 mutation to them.
There are natural deposits of asbestos in many states across the U.S People who live near large deposits of the mineral face exposure. Asbestos deposits are typically found in hilly or mountainous regions. While undisturbed asbestos is not dangerous, trace amounts of asbestos dust can contaminate the air in these regions. Areas near asbestos mines pose the highest risk.
Certain groups of people are at higher risk of developing mesothelioma. Most of these people came into direct contact with asbestos at work. Employees who worked in the following environments may have came into contact with asbestos:
- Working at an asbestos mine or asbestos-processing plant
- Working in construction or industries that use heavy machinery made with asbestos insulation
- Serving on military ships or military facilities built with products containing asbestos
- Living in a residential area near an asbestos mine or contaminated site
- Disturbing asbestos products during a home renovation without proper safety measures
The risk for asbestos-related illnesses is highest for people who came into contact with asbestos daily. Occupations include:
- Asbestos manufacturers
- Auto mechanics
- Boiler workers
- Chemical plant workers
- Construction workers
- Drywall workers
- Industrial workers
- Military members
- Power plant workers
- Shipyard workers
While asbestos isn’t typically used in new construction, some workers still come into contact with the material. Construction workers and firefighters have a higher chance of exposure during renovation, demolition, or disaster response.
Old buildings that are destroyed without proper safety precautions cause airborne asbestos fibers to contaminate the surrounding area.
Other Mesothelioma Risk Factors
Other factors can worsen the risk of developing mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma has a long latency period, which refers to the amount of time between asbestos exposure and the appearance of symptoms. As people age, their risk of developing mesothelioma increases. The body may struggle to fight against the development of cancers, like mesothelioma.
Men are more likely to develop mesothelioma than women. Peak production and consumption of asbestos in the United States occurred from the 1960s to the 1970s. During that time, more men worked in industries with a higher risk of asbestos exposure than women, who commonly developed mesothelioma through secondary exposure. There are very few studies comparing men and women and their biological ability to fight against mesothelioma.
While research is limited, some researchers believe that mesothelioma may develop faster with specific mutations. The virus SV40 may influence faster malignant cell growth. Patients who have the virus may have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma
Serving in the Military
One-third of mesothelioma patients in the United States served in the military. Many military bases, ships, and equipment built before the 1980s likely contained asbestos. Service members lived and worked around asbestos. Veterans who have mesothelioma are eligible for VA benefits, which help cover medical costs for the disease.
Secondary asbestos exposure typically happens when someone comes into contact with family members or friends who were exposed to the toxin firsthand. Asbestos can cling to clothing, skin, or hair. Workers can track the microscopic fibers into homes, where they end up embedded in furniture, carpet, shoes, and clothing. As a result, those who come into secondary contact risk developing mesothelioma.
Were You Exposed?
If you were exposed to asbestos, talk to your doctor as soon as you can. Patients who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma are eligible for compensation. To learn more about holding the asbestos companies accountable, read about asbestos litigation.