Asbestos is a known carcinogen linked to mesothelioma and other cancers. Millions of people — including many U.S. veterans — were exposed to asbestos between the 1930s and 1980s without knowing the risks. Today, veterans with asbestos-caused cancers may be able to get help via legal compensation and/or benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?
Asbestos exposure and cancer risk have been linked for decades. Asbestos is a highly durable mineral made up of microscopic fibers. Between the 1930s and 1980s, asbestos was used widely in building and insulation materials in the U.S. military and civilian life.
Manufacturers of products containing asbestos knew their goods could cause a variety of cancers but hid the truth to keep making money.
If someone disturbs an asbestos-based product, tiny fibers can enter the air and be inhaled or swallowed without notice. These fibers then get embedded into different parts of the body, and because they are so durable, they can’t be broken down by the human body.
Over time, the DNA of healthy cells is damaged by the asbestos fibers. This causes healthy cells to become cancerous and divide uncontrollably.
Someone exposed to asbestos may develop:
- Colon cancer
- Laryngeal cancer
- Lung cancer
- Rectal cancer
- Stomach cancer
Every year, thousands of people are diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. While anyone exposed to asbestos could develop cancer, those who worked around asbestos on a regular basis and faced occupational exposure — including U.S. veterans — have an increased risk.
Thankfully, veterans with cancer caused by asbestos exposure may be able to pursue VA benefits and legal compensation.
What Kinds of Cancer Does Asbestos Cause?
As of 2021, 8 different types of cancer have been linked to the use of asbestos. These asbestos-caused cancers are detailed below.
Malignant mesothelioma is a highly aggressive and rare cancer that develops in the mesothelium (the lining of the lungs, abdomen, heart, and testes). Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma.
There are 4 types of mesothelioma:
- Pleural mesothelioma, which forms in the lining of the lungs (pleura) and is the most common type
- Peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the abdomen and is the most treatable type
- Pericardial mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the heart and is very rare
- Testicular mesothelioma, which forms in the lining of the testes and is the rarest of all four types
Approximately 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. Since the military relied on asbestos to make bases, ships, and vehicles until the early 1980s, around 33% of those diagnosed are U.S. veterans.
While pleural mesothelioma affects the lining of the lungs specifically, veterans can also develop lung cancer from asbestos exposure.
Lung cancer is the third-most common form of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). While it has many causes, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that asbestos-related lung cancer kills 8,500-10,000 people each year.
Smokers exposed to asbestos on a regular basis have a higher risk of getting this cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). This is because both tobacco smoke and asbestos contain carcinogens that lead to lung cancer.
Asbestos exposure may cause cancer in any of the organs found in the gastrointestinal tract, like the colon, stomach, and rectum. Scientists are still trying to understand how big of a risk asbestos exposure plays in the development of these cancers.
At this time, researchers are still studying whether asbestos causes cancer in the colon. However, recent reports have found that asbestos exposure does increase the risk of colon cancer.
For example, a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found colon cancer was “significantly associated” with high rates of asbestos exposure among workers.
Past studies have also recovered asbestos fibers from the colon through biopsies (fluid/tissue samples) of those exposed to asbestos.
Additionally, in 2014, the VA granted benefits to a veteran on appeal after it was concluded that he developed colon cancer from military asbestos exposure.
Rectal cancer is closely related to colon cancer since the two are connected within the intestinal system.
A study from Environmental Health Perspectives did not find a notable link between asbestos exposure and rectal cancer due to a lack of cases. However, other studies have noted an increased risk of colorectal cancer among those exposed to asbestos. “Colorectal” is an umbrella term referring to both the colon and the rectum.
If asbestos fibers are swallowed, they may end up in the stomach and become stuck there. A cross-analysis of 36 studies found that asbestos exposure could possibly lead to stomach cancer.
“It is plausible that asbestos fibers could accumulate at sites of mucosal injury and ulceration in the stomach, but the extent to which this occurs in exposed persons has not been investigated.”
– The National Academy of Medicine
Asbestos has been clearly linked to ovarian cancer through numerous studies and mounting lawsuits against the company Johnson & Johnson® (J&J).
For decades, J&J made its world-famous baby powder from talc, a mineral often found near asbestos in natural rock deposits. Though talc on its own is generally safe, many talc deposits have been found to contain asbestos fibers.
Recently unearthed company documents revealed that J&J found asbestos fibers in its baby powder multiple times in its own studies but suppressed the truth.
Many women who used the powder as a feminine hygiene product were diagnosed with cancer in their ovaries decades later, according to recent lawsuits. In fact, 22 women with ovarian cancer were awarded a $4.69 billion verdict in July 2018 after a jury found that their cancer was connected to J&J talcum powder.
In 2006, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) confirmed that asbestos may cause laryngeal cancer, which affects the voice box. More research is needed to see if asbestos exposure increases the risk of other throat cancers.
“For cancer of the throat, the link is strongest for the hypopharynx, the part of the throat closest to the larynx (voice box). It’s not clear exactly how asbestos might affect risk for these cancers, but swallowed asbestos fibers might somehow contribute to the risk.”
– The American Cancer Society