Why Disasters Initiate a Discussion on Asbestos Exposure and the Dangers of Mesothelioma

Handyman standing on a ladder

When disasters strike, and homes are affected, we get calls. Even though the most recent disaster in the news was Hurricane Ian, we even got calls from Florida. While Denver and the surrounding areas are not in danger of a hurricane, there are still water or fire disasters that result in asbestos discussions. Depending on when your house was built, asbestos could be present in the materials used for construction. Along the same lines, if you have any renovation planned on your house, it is best to have asbestos testing done. Whenever floor tiles, roofing, dry wall or other materials are being disturbed, there is the chance of asbestos exposure. The prevention of mesothelioma may depend on your diligence.

Perhaps the most tragic disease associated with asbestos exposure is mesothelioma. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, “asbestos exposure is the only established risk factor known to be causally related to mesothelioma.”  In short, asbestos is the only proven cause of the disease. It is nearly always fatal, with an average life expectancy ranging from 12 to 21 months from the time of diagnosis.

Basic Information About Mesothelioma

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

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

Symptoms Associated with 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.

In non-pleural forms, symptoms vary and will appear when tumors have grown large enough to press against surrounding tissue. For example, symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include abdominal pain and/or swelling, night sweats, fatigue, fever, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, loss of appetite, and unexplained weight loss.

Treatment for Mesothelioma

There is currently no known cure for this disease. Standard treatments include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation, surgery, or 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.

The Link Between Asbestos and Mesothelioma

When asbestos fibers become airborne, they can be easily inhaled or swallowed. The fibers are so small that human ingestion occurs unnoticed. They lodge in the soft tissue of the lungs, abdomen, or heart where they will remain since the body cannot process them. Over time, the tissue becomes irreparably damaged, and tumors begin to grow. This leads to mesothelioma.

Asbestos fibers are released into the air in various ways. The most obvious cause is through mining of the raw mineral when it is harvested from the earth. However, fibers are also released in the manufacturing process, or when asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or have deteriorated.

High Risk Occupations for Developing Mesothelioma

Although any amount of asbestos exposure is unsafe and can cause mesothelioma, certain occupations put workers at greater risk. For example, mechanics, firefighters, construction workers, industrial workers, machinists, miners, refinery workers, and shipyard workers are all at high risk, especially if employed prior to the 1980s when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued strict regulations on asbestos handling.

Veterans are also at risk since asbestos was used by the military from 1930 to 1980 in various applications across all branches. In fact, veterans account for about 30 percent of all mesothelioma diagnoses.

Finally, anyone who has had repeated exposure to asbestos through secondary exposure (such as laundering contaminated clothing) or direct exposure to asbestos-containing materials/products is at risk.

Mesothelioma in the News

Mesothelioma continues to make the headlines today. In an ongoing legal battle, the widow of a 68-year-old man who died in 2020 from mesothelioma continues to pursue her claim for loss of consortium. The original case charged Johnson & Johnson with negligence and fraud for failing to disclose the presence of asbestos in their baby powder. The suit was dismissed, but the decision was subsequently overturned. You can read about the current case here.

In an effort to prevent diseases associated with asbestos – including mesothelioma – there are ongoing efforts to enforce a comprehensive ban on the importation and use of asbestos. Anti-asbestos advocates continue to raise awareness and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving forward in proposing a ban. With effective and strict regulations in place, newly diagnosed mesothelioma cases will diminish over time. And that’s a goal we can easily achieve once the appropriate bans are in place.

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