If you’ve heard of mesothelioma, you’ve probably heard of asbestos. Asbestos exposure is the main confirmed cause of mesothelioma, accounting for over 80 percent of all cases. However, the exact way that a carcinogen like asbestos causes cancers like mesothelioma (and similar medical conditions) is not as commonly understood.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a mineral fiber that naturally occurs in rocks and soil. It is very strong and resistant to heat and corrosion. For this reason, asbestos was widely used in a range of industries, often serving as insulation or protection from friction, heat, or fire damage. It was also used in many products, including those used in residential construction (such as insulation, floor tiles, shingles, textured paint, pipes, electrical wiring, and boilers), and those used in car manufacturing (including heat-resistant fabrics, clutches, and breaks).
In the second half of the 20th century, it became increasingly clear that asbestos causes significant health problems. In the early 1970s it was officially declared to be a carcinogen and was mostly banned from use in the United States in 1978—though some manufacturers and industries continued to use it regardless, well into the 1980s and 1990s.
Who is at risk of asbestos exposure?
People have been exposed to asbestos in several major ways, but the main form of heavy asbestos exposure was traditionally occupational (meaning that it occurred at work). Many industries used asbestos throughout the 20th century, and workers in those industries may be at risk of developing mesothelioma. These include, but are not limited to:
- Military (especially the U.S. Navy)
- Chemical plants
- Power plants
- Steel mills
- Automotive industries (including mechanics)
- Industrial or residential repair (including HVAC technicians, electricians, plumbers, engine repairmen, and machinists)
Asbestos exposure can also occur “second-hand” when someone who was brings asbestos fibers home with them on their bodies or clothing. It may also occur environmentally, if a person is exposed to asbestos fibers where they live or work despite not being involved in an asbestos-related field. Additionally, people can be exposed through a product that contains asbestos, including insulation, tiling, flooring, boilers, and other parts of many American homes built before 1978, as well as certain car parts, protective clothing, and other items. This risk is particularly relevant for those attempting DIY home repair; if a home contains asbestos, these repairs could disturb the fibers and cause severe health risks if not handled by a professional.
Overall, with strict regulation, asbestos exposure occurs much less frequently than it once did. However, exposure to asbestos was widespread for many years, and many people may therefore be at risk for mesothelioma. It is important to remember that while risk of mesothelioma rises significantly with the length of exposure (becoming especially high among those who are repeatedly exposed for a prolonged period of time), there is no safe amount of exposure to asbestos. According to NORD and other research, it is possible to develop mesothelioma after only one asbestos exposure—though most people diagnosed with mesothelioma were exposed repeatedly at work over the course of years.
How does Asbestos Cause Mesothelioma?
Asbestos is made up of many tiny fibers. When the material is disturbed or handled, these microscopic fibers are sent up into the air. Those exposed to asbestos may either inhale or swallow the airborne fibers.
Once asbestos fibers are inside the body, they may become lodged in the mesothelium, a thin protective tissue lining that covers several major internal organs. Asbestos fibers that are inhaled tend to lodge in the pleura (the lining between the lung cavity and the chest wall), while those that are swallowed and ingested tend to lodge in the peritoneum (the lining of the abdomen). In extremely rare cases, asbestos fibers can travel through the blood stream and lodge in the pericardium, the lining around the heart, or the tunica vaginalis, which protects the testicles.
Sharp asbestos fibers can pierce the mesothelial membrane and become embedded in the tissue. The mesothelial cells react to the asbestos fibers by becoming inflamed, in an attempt to remove the foreign body. However, the fibers often remain lodged in the tissue, since they are too durable and small for the body to remove. As a result, the mesothelial cells keep getting inflamed again and again, and scar tissue starts to form. Over time, this chronic inflammation harms the mesothelial cells. It can cause damage by interfering with cell division, and by physically altering the DNA code that tells the cell how to function which can lead to so much cellular damage that formerly healthy cells mutate and begin increasing uncontrollably, forming tumors. The result of this process is mesothelioma, a cancer that causes malignant tumors to grow on the mesothelium, and to potentially spread (or metastasize) to other parts of the body.
The location of the lodged asbestos fibers and damaged tissue generally determines what sort of mesothelioma a person develops. Mesothelioma that forms around the lungs is referred to as pleural mesothelioma, and mesothelioma that forms in the lining of the abdomen is called peritoneal mesothelioma. The two much rarer types of mesothelioma affect the lining of the heart (pericardial mesothelioma) and the lining of the testicles (testicular mesothelioma).
Normally, this process of chronic inflammation, cell damage, and scarring takes many years, and mesothelioma patients are generally diagnosed with mesothelioma decades after their asbestos exposure. This is referred to as mesothelioma’s “latency period.” Each patient’s case is different, but on average, mesothelioma has a latency period of around 20-60 years, with a mean of 40 years between asbestos exposure and diagnosis. Generally, the longer and more intense a person’s exposure to asbestos, the shorter their latency period will be. Pleural mesothelioma also tends to have a longer latency period (30-60 years on average) than peritoneal mesothelioma (20-40 years on average).
Unfortunately, mesothelioma tends to be diagnosed at an advanced stage. There are many reasons for this, including the long latency period, late onset of symptoms, and the fact that the earliest symptoms (most commonly shortness of breath, chest pain, and fatigue) are often misdiagnosed as other conditions. Mesothelioma is relatively rare, and patients often don’t think to report asbestos exposure in the distant past, leading to further misdiagnosis.
Are you or a loved one looking for more information about mesothelioma? Call (855) 385-9532 or visit www.satterleylaw.com to learn more.