Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that can affect the lungs, the pericardium, the abdominal cavity and the testes. It is almost exclusively caused by having some kind of exposure to asbestos.
Mesothelioma Risk Factors Explained
Asbestos is a fiber that has needle-like qualities. It is fairly light and can float in the air, where it can be ingested or inhaled by an individual. Because the asbestos fibers are like tiny needles, they bore into the tissues inside the body and are not easily coughed out. The fibers remain in the lungs or abdominal cavity and migrate to the pericardium (lining of the heart) or pleura, which is the lining of the lungs.
Some fibers that are ingested migrate to the peritoneum, which lines the abdominal organs and the abdominal fiber. They remain in these tissues for many years before causing mesothelioma. People have developed mesothelioma up to fifty years after being exposed to the asbestos fibers. This results in an aggressive cancer that cannot be cured.
Most asbestos exposures happen when employees of a company work with asbestos in the manufacture of many types of fibers. Asbestos was widely used by the Navy to insulate their submarines. As a result, many Navy personnel and ship or submarine builders were exposed to asbestos when these vessels were built.
Sometimes the victim of asbestos exposure is not the employee of the company, but is a family member of a worker who was exposed to asbestos. People working with the substance would come home with the fibers coating their work clothing, and the fibers were then inhaled or ingested by a family member who only came in contact with asbestos from fibers brought into the house.
Smokers who also were exposed to asbestos are at a higher risk of getting an asbestos-related illness. Smoking affects the lungs’ ability to cough out substances that are inhaled, so more asbestos fibers remain inside the lungs which causes mesothelioma, asbestosis and other types of lung cancer associated with smoking.
Asbestos-related illnesses and mesothelioma were exceedingly rare prior to the 1900s, when companies and industries began to use asbestos to make things like fireproof bricks, insulation and other construction products. At first, there were no instances of mesothelioma, but about 1-2 decades later, increasing numbers of employees of companies producing asbestos-containing products developed a cancer that was ultimately called mesothelioma.
The connection between asbestos and mesothelioma was not initially established. By the 1970s, it became clear that the number one cause of mesothelioma was exposure to asbestos. It is extremely rare for a person to develop mesothelioma who was not exposed to this type of fiber.
Asbestos not only causes mesothelioma, but it is the only cause of a lung disease that came to be known as asbestosis. Asbestosis affects the entire lung, whereas mesothelioma affects the lining of the lung. Peritoneal mesothelioma was and continues to be caused by ingesting asbestos fibers that stick to the stomach and intestines, eventually boring their way into the peritoneum, where mesothelioma sets in after several decades of irritating the peritoneum. All types of mesothelioma and asbestosis are considered incurable and strongly affect the lifespan of the individual who develops these diseases.
By 2011, the connection between asbestos and mesothelioma became so clear that the International Agency for Research on Cancer presented their findings on the link between the development of mesothelioma and asbestos exposure to the World Health Organization conference. They discussed the latest scientific research findings that conclusively showed this connection and noted that neither the type of asbestos or the length of the asbestos fiber played a role in who got mesothelioma and who didn’t.
Risk Factors of Mesothelioma
The connection between asbestos and mesothelioma has been conclusively established, but there are other things that increase the risk of getting mesothelioma.
Some of the risk factors that increase the chances of developing mesothelioma include:
- People who work at an asbestos mine or asbestos processing plant. Asbestos is friable and is easily airborne so that, in asbestos mines and factories that process the particle, asbestos is in the air. This is then easily ingested or inhaled unless the individual uses protective equipment that can prevent their intaking of the substance. Even with protection, asbestos can be found on clothing and inhaled.
- Working in construction or automotive factories. Asbestos is found in insulation used in cars, homes and other buildings. While the use of asbestos in these areas has significantly decreased after the connection between asbestos and mesothelioma was discovered, there are older buildings and cars that still contain asbestos fibers. Workers doing remodeling of a structure, for example, sometimes need to take out or otherwise manipulate asbestos-containing insulation and, without protective equipment, they can easily inhale or ingest fibers that fly into the air from these construction materials.
- Working on a military ship or in facilities that still have asbestos products in them. Asbestos was especially prevalent in the making of submarines and ships since World War II when it was decided that all submarines be insulated. Asbestos was used in the insulation of ships and submarines and even those who merely came in contact with the insulation are at a higher risk of inhaling asbestos fibers and coming down with mesothelioma decades later.
- Living in a place that is near an asbestos mine. Anyone who lives in a residential area that happens to be located near an asbestos mine has higher concentrations of asbestos in the air. These individuals inhale or ingest the fibers every time they go outside.
- People who are renovating. Anyone in the renovation business or homeowners who disturb their asbestos-containing insulation as part of a renovation project are at risk of inhaling or ingesting asbestos if the proper protective gear isn’t used.
As the link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma is clear, caution must be taken whenever an individual works with products that might have asbestos in them as part of their construction.