Q and As on Asbestos and Health Affects

Decades after asbestos was subjected to heavy governmental regulations – including a partial ban – it continues to threaten the health of thousands of Americans. For example, Johnson & Johnson is working to settle thousands of lawsuits that claim its talc-based baby powder causes cancer. Many of the plaintiffs in these cases suffer from mesothelioma. This aggressive form of cancer has been linked exclusively to asbestos exposure.

What is mesothelioma? Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive form of lung cancer. It develops in the tissues that surround most of the internal organs of the body. There are four types of mesothelioma:

  1. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of the disease. Tumors form on the soft tissues surrounding the lungs, known as the pleura.
  2. Peritoneal mesothelioma represents less than 20 percent of all mesothelioma cases. It forms in the tissue lining the abdominal cavity.
  3. Pericardial mesothelioma accounts for about 1 percent of mesothelioma cases. It develops in the membrane, or pericardium, surrounding the heart.
  4. Testicular mesothelioma is rare, representing less than 1 percent of all cases. This type of mesothelioma grows in the membrane covering the testes.

What are the symptoms of mesothelioma? The most common symptoms associated with pleural mesothelioma include chest pain, shortness of breath, dry cough, fatigue, fever or night sweats, and respiratory complications. Peritoneal mesothelioma causes symptoms such as abdominal pain and swelling, nausea, and unexplained weight loss. Signs and symptoms for other forms of mesothelioma are unclear, since these forms of the disease are rare.

Can mesothelioma be treated? There is currently no known cure for this disease. However, standard treatments include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation, surgery, and multimodal therapy. Some patients may qualify for clinical trials. Treatment is specific and individualized, and most patients can benefit from some kind of palliative care to help manage symptoms.

How does asbestos cause health problems? Asbestos becomes dangerous when its fibers become airborne. These fibers are so small that they can be ingested or inhaled unnoticed. Once inside the body the fibers become lodged in the lungs and other soft tissues, causing scarring and inflammation. The damaged cells can eventually become cancerous.

How do asbestos fibers become airborne? Asbestos fibers are released into the air in various ways. The most obvious cause in through mining of the raw mineral. However, fibers are also released in the manufacturing process or when asbestos containing materials (ACM) are disturbed through renovation or demolition, or when they deteriorate over time.

What are high risk occupations associated with asbestos exposure? Although any amount of asbestos exposure is unsafe and can cause mesothelioma, certain occupations put workers at greater risk. These include mechanics, firefighters, construction workers, industrial workers, machinists, miners, refinery workers, and shipyard workers. Veterans are at risk, too, since asbestos was used by the military between 1930 and 1980 in various applications. For example, every Navy ship built in the 20th century contained asbestos. Veterans account for about 30 percent of all mesothelioma cases. Anyone with repeated secondary exposure is also at risk. Laundering contaminated clothing is an example of secondary exposure.

How can I protect myself from this disease? If you work in a high-risk occupation, follow the safety guidelines for working with asbestos and ACM. Consult websites such as to learn more. If you live in an older home and have concerns about the presence of asbestos, contact a licensed, trained asbestos professional who can advise you. And if you have been exposed to asbestos through past employment or a building renovation project, seek regular medical examinations to check for signs of an asbestos-related illness. Early detection provides the best prognosis for mesothelioma, so don’t wait for symptoms to appear. Being proactive and staying informed can make all the difference.

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