Although almost everyone has heard about asbestos, not many people are knowledgeable about the diseases it may cause, including a rare form of cancer called mesothelioma. There is also a lot of misinformation about asbestos, its use, and its effects. Whether you’ve been diagnosed with this tragic disease or are simply curious, it’s important to learn as much as you can, and to get the facts.
Myth #1: Asbestos Is Banned, So No One Uses It Anymore
Contrary to what many people believe, this is simply not true. Asbestos regulations in the United States have gotten more stringent, but there remain over 3,000 consumer goods that contain asbestos. Many of these products can be found in your local hardware or home-improvement store. Caulking, joint compound, roofing shingles, drywall and gaskets are just a few of these products that may still have asbestos within them—although it might not be listed as “asbestos,” but instead be labeled by the manufacturer as “Canadian fiber” or “chrysotile,” which is simply one of the forms of asbestos.
Additionally, asbestos is allowed to remain in buildings constructed before the regulations were put in place, so any structure that was built or renovated between 1930 and 1980 is likely to have even greater quantities of asbestos, in the ceiling and floor tiles, plaster, electrical and plumbing systems, siding and many other materials.
If asbestos materials are intact, they probably are not dangerous. It’s when they are damaged or old that they can disintegrate into a fine dust that can then be inhaled—this inhalation of asbestos, especially over a prolonged period, can lead to mesothelioma and other other health problems.
Myth #2: The Dangers of Asbestos Have Been Exaggerated by Lawyers
While it is true that asbestos litigation has become one of the largest tort issues in the United States today, the hazards of asbestos—and the fact that it can lead to mesothelioma, asbestosis, asbestos-related lung cancer and other diseases—has been well documented by the scientific and medical communities. Scores of studies have been conducted into the connection between asbestos exposure and disease, and there are virtually no cases of mesothelioma that can be definitely attributed to other causes.
One of the reasons this myth persists is because asbestos does not have an immediate effect on human health, the way some other toxic substances can. In fact, it can take between 20 and 50 years for mesothelioma to make itself known, although it can be worsening in the body for much of that time. The period between exposure to asbestos and a mesothelioma diagnosis is called a latency period, and it’s one of the most unusual things about this form of cancer. The same latency period may also apply to asbestosis and other asbestos-related diseases.
Myth #3: Mesothelioma Only Affects the Elderly
Because of this long latency period, mesothelioma is rarely diagnosed in people who are younger than 50. However, there are some instances in which younger victims fall prey. In 2008, a 28-year-old Manchester woman named Leigh Carlisle became the youngest person ever recorded to die of mesothelioma, which she had contracted when walking to primary school. Carlisle used to take a shortcut through a factory yard where asbestos materials were cut and handled, and it is almost certain that this is what caused her cancer.
To date, the youngest person ever diagnosed with mesothelioma was 13-year-old Sophie Ellis. Now 17, Ellis—who also hails from Manchester—may have walked through the same asbestos factory yard as Carlisle did, or she may also have breathed in asbestos fibers in her school building. Sophie has outlived the average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients, which is a tragically short six to 18 months.
In the US, another 13-year-old has been diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of simply living in the town of Libby, Montana. Many young children in the area may have been exposed to asbestos particulate from a very young age, possibly even from birth. Since owners of asbestos mines in Libby once donated excess vermiculite material to the town’s playgrounds, Little League fields and other recreational areas for use as a cushioning or building material, the average age of mesothelioma cases in that region are expected to trend much lower than the national average.
Myth #4: Only People Who Work Directly With Asbestos Are At Risk For Mesothelioma
As the cases of the two brave young women in Manchester and the children in Libby show, indirect contact with asbestos is every bit as dangerous as handling the material directly. The asbestos dust which is created whenever the material is used can not only remain airborne for a long time, it can also travel on wind currents and contaminate water and soil. Moreover, it can settle into the fibers of clothing. Recently, there has been an alarming upswing in the number of mesothelioma cases that are attributable to secondhand exposure. The spouses and children of asbestos workers may have been put at risk, especially if the worker came home while wearing asbestos-contaminated coveralls or uniforms and greeted his family with hugs. Laundering such contaminated garments on a regular basis has also been the cause of several cases of mesothelioma. Although the disease itself is not communicable, the deadly fibers and dust which cause it can easily be transported from place to place, and transferred from person to person.
Additionally, there is an environmental risk associated with this carcinogenic substance, even before it is manufactured. In areas where any of the minerals collectively known as asbestos are mined, the groundwater and soil can be poisoned, and the very air can have extremely high concentrations of the asbestos particulate. The above-referenced Libby, Montana is the site of a former vermiculite mine in which owners of the mine have been implicated in the deaths of hundreds of residents. This includes both miners and average citizens, as well as being involved in the illnesses of thousands more. Wittenoom, a town in Western Australia that was built near a blue asbestos mine, has actually been closed, although one couple refuses to leave the area.
Myth #5: Asbestos Workers Knew the Risks and Took Them Anyway
Since ancient times, the hazards of working around asbestos have been witnessed firsthand. Yet because of its remarkable properties, many companies and governments have gone to great lengths to minimize, conceal or cover up those risks. It has been documented that when workers expressed concern about the great clouds of asbestos dust which surrounded them in the workplace, their superiors lied. When internal studies concluded that workers were falling prey to respiratory conditions at a much greater rate than the average population, executives quashed the studies. The benefits of this mineral were so remarkable that, for a generation of business people, they outweighed the risks of diseases that might not appear for years to come. Unfortunately, that gamble did not pay in the long run—or, rather, it was paid for by the millions of people who lost their lives or their loved ones to this silent killer.
Myth #6: You Have To Work With Asbestos For Years To Be Affected
This myth may be another one which stems from asbestos diseases’ long latency periods. Since so many mesothelioma sufferers are only diagnosed when they are at or nearing retirement age, it may seem as though it takes years of occupational exposure to cause the cancer. Yet this is a fallacy, since there are also many cases in which the sufferer experienced only temporary or limited exposure. No matter the amount of asbestos particulate the patient has inhaled or ingested, the disease takes a similar amount of time to manifest. Of course, the sheer amount of asbestos inhaled over a lifetime of working around it, compared to occasional exposure, can increase the chances of contracting mesothelioma. But one instance of exposure can be enough to spur the onset of this devastating disease, although it may not become evident until decades later.
Myth #7: Asbestos Should Be Removed Immediately If It Is Found
Actually, there are times when it is better to leave asbestos materials in place. Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) may be classified as either “friable” or “non-friable.” The Environmental Protection Agency defines friability as the material’s ability to be crushed by very slight pressure, such as that which could be applied by a human hand. When an ACM is friable, it can easily crumble and release its microscopic fibers into the air, thus rendering those close by susceptible to contracting mesothelioma.
Friability occurs when the material is cut or damaged in any way–whether accidentally or on purpose–as during manufacture or when the material ages and becomes naturally weak and brittle. The removal of asbestos material necessarily renders the asbestos friable. If it is in good condition, it is generally safer to leave it in place or to encapsulate it, so that the friability no longer is an issue.
Myth #8: “I’ll Be Fine If I Wear A Mask”
While a respirator mask is one of the protective items that should always be used when working with asbestos, simply wearing a mask is not enough. First, anyone who practices asbestos abatement—removal or encapsulation of asbestos-containing materials—needs to be trained in the proper procedures, as well as licensed. In other words, this isn’t necessarily something that an individual home improvement enthusiast should attempt. In fact, it’s even illegal in some states, because of the potential health hazards; not only to the homeowner, but to anyone else in the area, including neighbors and passersby. Because the asbestos dust can remain airborne for such a long time, and because it can easily contaminate the groundwater, proper disposal must follow a specific protocol. The specialist will not only wear a respirator and other protective clothing, but will also take steps to properly dispose of any asbestos-containing materials, as well as to prevent the transfer of toxic asbestos particulate from the contaminated location to other areas.
Myth #9: There Is Only One Kind of Asbestos
Most people talk about “asbestos” as if it were a single entity, but in fact the term applies to six different silicate minerals, which have many common qualities but which may also vary from one another in significant ways. All asbestos is highly resistant to heat, flame, electrical currents and chemical damage. All types also have valuable properties of sound absorption and tensile strength, as well as the ability to be mixed with cement or plastics, or woven into fabric or yarn. Asbestos can be divided into two groups: serpentine and amphibole.
Serpentine asbestos has a layered or sheet-like structure, and has been the most commonly used type of asbestos in the United States. Chrysotile is the only mineral in the serpentine group,
The other group is the amphibole group, which includes amosite, crocidolite, anthophylite, tremolite and actinolite. Of these, amosite and crocidolite were the most widely used forms. The fibers of these minerals, when seen under a microscope, are sharp and needlelike.
Myth #10: Mesothelioma Is Just A Different Name for Lung Cancer
Although mesothelioma is a type of cancer, it’s different than lung cancer for several reasons. First, it does not affect the actual lung tissue, but the mesothelium—a tissue which covers the lungs and lines the inside of the chest cavity. It is also much more diffuse than the typical lung cancer, which tends to manifest as a discrete tumor or tumors. Mesothelioma tumors actually spread across this thin membrane, making them difficult to surgically remove or to treat with either chemotherapy or radiation.
The confusion between these two diseases, aside from the fact that they both affect lung function, may arise from the fact that asbestos, while virtually the only cause of mesothelioma, is just one of the contributing factors in lung cancer. Smoking, family history and other environmental factors can also contribute to lung cancer.
Myth #11: Mesothelioma Only Affects the Lungs
Malignant pleural mesothelioma—the form of this disease that attacks the mesothelium surrounding the lungs and lining the inner thoracic cavity—is the most common type, affecting approximately 75% of all mesothelioma patients. There are other forms, however. The second most frequent type is peritoneal mesothelioma, which targets the mesothelial layer around the stomach. Additionally, pericardial mesothelioma affects the sac covering the heart. Lastly, an extremely rare form of the disease—diagnosed in fewer than 100 patients worldwide—is mesothelioma of the tunica vaginalis, which is the mesothelial membrane lining the scrotum and protecting the testes.
As with any disease, knowledge is power. The more you know about the sources of an illness, the better prepared you will be to combat it. Anyone who may have experienced asbestos exposure in the past—whether occupationally or environmentally, on a first- or secondhand basis—is strongly encouraged to let their physician know about their potential exposure and to make sure that this information becomes a part of their personal health care records. Additionally, they should self-monitor for the symptoms of asbestos-related diseases, which can closely resemble, and therefore be mistaken for, the symptoms of other respiratory conditions. Shortness of breath; difficulty catching one’s breath; undue fatigue; difficulty swallowing; pain in the chest, back or rib area; protrusions in the abdominal area; swelling of the face or neck; persistent and/or bloody cough—all of these, especially in combination with previous asbestos contact, can signal the presence of a mesothelioma tumor and should be evaluated immediately.