Every October, we recognize Healthy Lung Month and seek to bring attention to diseases of the lung that affect thousands of Americans every year. Lung cancer and mesothelioma are both among these lung diseases, and both have ties to the dangerous toxin asbestos. In light of Healthy Lung Month and Mesothelioma Awareness Day passing at the end of September, now is the perfect time to highlight asbestos-related diseases and how to work to prevent victims from being diagnosed in the future.
Over 50,000 people have died from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases since 1999. A variety of factors contribute to this number, including a lack of awareness and the lack of an asbestos ban in the United States. While asbestos is banned in several countries, 1 percent of the mineral is still allowed in products. Spreading information about where asbestos might be and how it affects human health can help stop accidental exposure and eventually lead to a worldwide ban of the substance.
Legislation and Policy
Today, asbestos is regulated in the United States, but it is not completely banned. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 allows the EPA to regulate chemicals used in commercial products and services. Many countries around the world have taken a stance and banned the material, but a percentage of the toxin still allowed in commercial products in the US. Furthermore, the EPA recently proposed what is call the Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) which could introduce previously unregulated uses of the toxin in products and other industries. Even though asbestos is not completely banned in the United States, it is worth noting that exposure in any form or any amount is dangerous and could lead to a devastating prognosis.
It is important to stay vigilant when it comes to asbestos and what products it may be in. News reports will generally report on products that contain asbestos, most recently crayons sold at the Dollar Tree, but it is also important for citizens to share this information when they find products that contain the substance. Reading labels and staying up to date on consumer information could prevent you or someone you know from ingesting a dangerous material like asbestos. For those who may have been exposed in the past to asbestos, it’s also important to keep a watchful eye on potential symptoms of mesothelioma and lung cancer. Recognizing these symptoms as early as possible can add months and potentially years onto a patient’s life.
Cause of Mesothelioma
The only recognized cause of mesothelioma cancer is asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was used widely throughout the United States during the 20th century. Its presence was especially prevalent in industrial settings because of its durability and resistance to heat, fire, and most chemicals.
Some industries that relied heavily on asbestos include manufacturing and construction, as well as shipyard workers. Asbestos could also be found in over 3,000 consumer products during at one point in time. Although men who worked in industrial settings were certainly the most affected demographic, they were not the only ones who could be negatively affected by asbestos exposure.
Though men are much more likely to receive a mesothelioma diagnosis, cases of this cancer have been found in both men and women at a variety of ages. This proves that occupational exposure is not the only situation that can lead to asbestos-related diseases and that the presence of asbestos can lead to significant health problems for people of all demographics.
Historically, asbestos exposure concerns have been linked to occupational exposure because the industries that used the toxin were not heavily regulated. Many of these concerns are still prominent due to the cancer’s long latency period, with symptoms taking anywhere from 10 to 50 years to begin to appear. This means that people who were exposed years ago might still be at risk for developing this cancer.
While there are stricter regulations in place today, asbestos still presents risks to both workers in certain industries and the general population. In the last few decades, doctors and researchers have voiced concerns surrounding a “third wave of asbestos exposure,” which refers to health risks associated with asbestos that already exists in the home and workplace.
Attention regarding this concern has been drawn to DIY and home renovation projects specifically. Although there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, the toxin is not harmful if it remains undisturbed or appropriately contained in certain structures. However, when a structure or material that contains asbestos is damaged, it can release toxic asbestos dust and microscopic fibers. These fibers can become lodged in the lining of the lungs, heart, and abdomen if they are inhaled or ingested. If this happens, the fibers will begin to irritate the lining of these internal organs, eventually leading to scarring and the development of mesothelioma tumors.
Mesothelioma Types and Symptoms
Of the roughly 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed each year, 70 to 90 percent of those cases are diagnosed as pleural mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma, a type of mesothelioma that causes malignant tumors to develop in the pleura or the linings of the lungs, is caused by the inhalation of microscopic fibers. If fibers become trapped in the inner layer of the lining (the visceral surface) or the outer layer (the parietal surface), they can cause chronic inflammation and scar tissue that can develop into tumors. Symptoms for this type of mesothelioma include persistent coughing, chest or lower back pain, difficulty swallowing, and shortness of breath.
Peritoneal mesothelioma , the second most common form of mesothelioma occurs in the lining of the abdomen following ingestion of asbestos. Patients who are diagnosed with this type of mesothelioma have a life expectancy of one year but has the most favorable prognosis of any of the forms of the disease. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include breathing difficulties, fever, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and weakness.
The third most common form of mesothelioma is pericardial, occurring the lining of the heart. This type of mesothelioma makes up 1-2 percent of diagnoses and is difficult to treat and is often not recognized until after death. Chest pains and fluid buildup are both common symptoms of pericardial mesothelioma.
Current and Emerging Treatments
Mesothelioma has an unfortunate prognosis, but not a hopeless one. There are several treatments arising that can prolong life expectancy and increase the quality of life for patients. In the early stages of the cancer, surgery can sometimes be used to alleviate pain to areas where the cancer has spread. Another common form of treatment for mesothelioma that aims to shrink the size of tumors is chemotherapy. There are a variety of treatment options, some which use chemotherapy on its own and others use a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Radiation therapy is also used commonly to target cancer cells and for palliative care, which focuses on improving symptoms and quality of life rather than curing the disease.
There is currently no cure for mesothelioma, but that hasn’t stopped doctors and researchers from doing their best to come up with new experimental treatments, including immunotherapy This emerging therapy hones in on the immune system, attempting to boost the body’s fight against cancer cells and can also be used to retrain the immune system in tandem with other forms of treatment.
Gene therapy is also being tested in clinical trials and could be beneficial to mesothelioma patients in the future. Using this measure of treatment, malfunctioning genes are replaced with operative genes in order to improve those affected by mesothelioma. Gene therapy allows genetic sequences to work accurately, prolonging life expectancy. At this time, this type of treatment is only available through clinical trials, and is generally used alongside other forms of treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation.