The only thing that has ever been proven to cause mesothelioma is asbestos, which most patients were exposed to while they were in the work environment. Due to its resistance to both fire and chemicals, asbestos was a popular choice for things such as drywall, roofing shingles, brake pads, toasters, and insulation.
What is Asbestos?
The United States military relied heavily on asbestos which is why veterans are more likely to develop mesothelioma than any other group of individuals. Although the use of asbestos has decreased, and even been banned in several countries, it’s still used throughout the United States.
Asbestos is a natural mineral that can be found in rock. The two types of asbestos are:
- Serpentine Asbestos which are wavy fibers that the body can expel almost as easily as they can be inhaled. Since the fibers can be exhaled and don’t linger in the lungs or abdomen, very few cases of mesothelioma develop as a result of serpentine asbestos.
- Amphibole Asbestos is the type of asbestos that triggers most cases of mesothelioma asbestos cancer. These types of fibers are very rigid and look almost like tiny needles. After being inhaled, the fibers lodge in the soft tissue of the lungs and over time turn into cancerous cells.
How Does Asbestos Exposure Lead to Mesothelioma?
When asbestos fibers are disrupted, such as when construction is being done on a building, the small asbestos fibers are released into the air and are either inhaled or ingested. If the fibers can’t be exhaled, they lodge themselves into the protective lining that encases the heart, lungs, and abdomen.
As time goes by, the surrounding cells which are called mesothelial cells, become irritated. Eventually genetic mutations, that turn into cancerous tumors develop. The entire process can take 20 – 50 years. Since early mesothelioma symptoms closely mirror colds, the flu, and pneumonia, the cancer often isn’t detected until it reaches the later stages when curative treatment becomes difficult.
How Exposure Happens
Most individuals who develop mesothelioma experienced occupational exposure. The more industrial a work environment was, the greater the odds of mesothelioma developing 20 – 50 years later become. In addition to veterans, dockyard workers and electricians are the groups who seem to have experienced the highest asbestos exposure.
Just because an individual didn’t work or live in an asbestos-rich environment doesn’t mean they aren’t at risk of developing mesothelioma. A startling number of the cases are determined to have been caused by secondhand exposure to asbestos.
It’s believed that the asbestos was brought home on the hair, skin, and clothing of a loved one who did work somewhere with asbestos. The longer the secondhand asbestos was inhaled, the more at risk the entire household is for developing mesothelioma.
Many people are surprised to learn that asbestos isn’t a man made fiber, but actually a naturally occurring mineral. If a person lived in an area that was close to an asbestos deposit, it’s likely they were exposed to the mineral through their ground water or by breathing in the dust created by a mining operation.
Although the use of asbestos has not yet been abolished in the United States like it has in other countries, regulations are in place that requires all material containing asbestos to be labeled as either friable or non-friable asbestos.
If a material is classified as friable, it means it can easily be broken or crumbled and release asbestos fibers into the air. The government believes that the sturdy nature of non-friable asbestos material is safe to use. The problem is that just because material starts out as non-friable doesn’t mean it can turn friable as it ages and becomes more brittle or gets damaged.
In 1981, in an attempt to protect Americans the Environmental Protection Agency started requiring businesses in the United States to list the products they made that contained asbestos. Seven years later, the Asbestos Information Act was developed which is legally requires manufacturers of asbestos materials to provide the EPA with detailed information about each asbestos rich product they produce.
Are You At Risk?
If you think there was a chance you were exposed to asbestos, it’s in your best interest to get tested on a regular basis which will increase the odds of the condition getting caught while it’s still in its early stages and can be treated with curative measures.
Factors to consider when you’re determining if there’s a chance of you developing mesothelioma include:
- What your occupation was and if the environment was rich in asbestos products
- The type of asbestos you believe you were exposed to
- How intense your exposure was
- If you have a personal or genetic history of lung disease
- Concentration of exposure
Doctors who work with mesothelioma patients have noticed that a key factor as to who does and who doesn’t develop the disease is paramount to their work history. Prior to the 1980’s, there were hardly any regulations in place to limit employee exposure to asbestos. Individuals with the following work history are generally at a greater risk for developing mesothelioma:
- Miners who worked long hours in poorly ventilated shafts
- Roof layers
- Individuals who installed installation
- Construction workers who demolished walls made from drywall
- Veterans, especially those that served in the Navy
One of the challenges connected to mesothelioma is how long it takes to develop. It’s not unusual for a person to experience 40+ years of excellent health before they develop any of the symptoms. As a result, most cases are men who have passed their 65th birthday. Although very rare, it sometimes appears in individuals as young as 20 who were subject to secondhand asbestos exposure.
Veterans and Mesothelioma
Veterans, especially U.S. Navy veterans, are at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma, more-so than any other group of people. Doctors report that 1/3 of their cases are former naval members.
Many feel that this is because before the risks of asbestos were understood, the Navy used many asbestos products to do everything from insulting the engine rooms to insulating the barracks.
Smoking and Mesothelioma
Interestingly enough, smoking, although dangerous on its own, doesn’t seem to increase the odds of a person developing mesothelioma. What it can do, is make treating the disease even more difficult and challenging than it already is.
What You Can Do
If you’ve thought of your history and feel it’s likely you inhaled asbestos fibers, the best thing you can do is get to a specialist who recognizes the early signs of the disease for an examination. This checkup should become a regular part of your life. If mesothelioma develops it can be caught early, greatly improving your prognosis.