Asbestos as a Cause of Mesothelioma
Asbestos exposure is the leading risk factor associated with mesothelioma.
It is still unclear why some people develop mesothelioma after asbestos exposure and some do not. What is clear is this: asbestos is the one known and confirmed link to mesothelioma.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos consists of different types of minerals that occur naturally in a fibrous, bundled form. The fibers are composed of thin, microscopic threads that resemble tinsel. These threads make up a dense and durable material that we know as asbestos.
Asbestos is the term used to describe a group of six different minerals, which are divided into two separate groups.
- Serpentine asbestos is a form of asbestos most commonly used in commercial applications. It includes chrysotile asbestos.
- Amphibole asbestos consists of:
Asbestos fibers can withstand heat and corrosion because they are so durable. Its strength and natural abundance once made asbestos an ideal material to use in industrial and construction materials.
Where is Asbestos Used?
Asbestos has traditionally been used around the world to construct buildings, vehicles, ships and other industrial equipment. In North America, many older buildings such as homes, schools and offices were constructed using asbestos.
It is often used as an insulation in walls and around piping. It is commonly used as a fire retardant for building protection as well.
Asbestos has also been used as a manufacturing material in products like:
- Vinyl flooring and tiles
- Roofing shingles
- Siding materials
- Vehicle clutches and brakes
The U.S. military used asbestos to construct Army vehicles and Navy vessels. It was used to a greater extent during World War II and the Cold War when military operations were higher. This is why many veterans today are being diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Though there is growing awareness about the health risks associated with asbestos exposure, its use is not outright banned. Asbestos has been banned in some capacities, such as in pipe insulation and certain paper products. However, asbestos is still used in many construction materials today, such as roofing and cement products.
How Are People Exposed to Asbestos?
Most mesothelioma patients were exposed to asbestos through their occupation. Many of them were exposed to asbestos directly through the mining and extraction process. Others were exposed to asbestos during construction, renovations or demolitions of buildings, as well as in the manufacturing of vehicles and vessels.
Much like second-hand smoke, people can be exposed to asbestos indirectly. If you lived with someone who worked around asbestos, you may have been exposed to it as well. This is because asbestos has a tendency to stick to skin and clothing. These fibers could have been tracked into the home where they became airborne and susceptible to inhalation and ingestion by anyone nearby.
How Does Asbestos Cause Mesothelioma?
The microscopic fibers that make up asbestos can easily become airborne when disturbed. This means that anyone nearby can potentially breathe in or ingest the fibers into their bodies.
When inhaled, asbestos fibers can settle deep into the linings that cover the lungs (pleura), abdomen (peritoneum) or heart (pericardium). These coverings are meant to protect the organs. Instead, they become compromised by foreign asbestos fibers.
When asbestos fibers settle into the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart, they stay there permanently and cannot be eliminated from the body. Over time, this causes irritation and inflammation which triggers cellular changes in the lining’s tissue.
These cellular changes within the linings create mesothelioma cancer cells that naturally divide and multiply. As they multiply, mesothelioma cells group together to form tumors, or masses of cancerous tissue. These tumors grow and spread as the mesothelioma cells continue to divide.
Without treatment, mesothelioma can spread to nearby organs. Once the disease leaves the area where it began, it can cause serious damage to organs and bodily systems.
With treatment, mesothelioma can be controlled and may even cease to spread completely.
Because of the nature of asbestos use and the latency of mesothelioma, many people over the age of 65 are being diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases today. It can affect both men and women, but men are much more likely to develop mesothelioma due to the types of work that involve asbestos.
Researchers are constantly learning more about mesothelioma as more patient cases come forward. Understanding the link between mesothelioma and asbestos has been a critical component in researching, diagnosing and treating this cancer type. It is important to tell your doctor about your history of asbestos exposure if you start to experience mesothelioma symptoms.
Today, mesothelioma treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are becoming more effective due to the ongoing research into asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma.
Talk to your health care team about the promising new treatments available in clinical trials. Many of these treatments have helped patients increase their life expectancies and improve their qualities of life.