Janet Watson, aged 59, died of mesothelioma in September 2004. Mrs. B, aged 58, died of mesothelioma in April 1975. Genevieve Gunderson, aged 75, was diagnosed with fatal mesothelioma in 2002. What do these three women have in common? All three were retired hairdressers. The first two women definitely contracted malignant mesothelioma as a result of their employment; the third women was also exposed to asbestos as a result of her husband’s employment, but certainly would have come into contact with asbestos as a result of her own career.
Although most people think of metal workers, or people in the construction industry, as the group of people with occupational exposure to asbestos, those are not the only professions that have been impacted by the widespread use of asbestos for its heat insulating properties. Until the late 1970s asbestos was regularly used as an insulator in both hand-held and hood-type hair dryers. Hairdryer manufacturers voluntarily stopped using asbestos, but it has never been officially banned, despite an official report from the United States Consumer Protection Commission in 1979 confirming that it had received an independent study showing that asbestos fibers emitted from hair dryers posted a significant health risk.
Hairdressers going about their day-to-day business had no idea they were being occupationally exposed to chrysotile asbestos. While other professions may have had a greater risk of asbestos exposure, and larger dosages of asbestos, medical experts agree that every exposure to a carcinogen increases the risk of developing cancer, and asbestos is a known carcinogen. The fine dust asbestos releases when its fibers are disturbed can easily be inhaled. Once in the body it gets imbedded in the lungs and surrounding area. This mineral has been associated with many forms of asbestos cancer including lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, and mesothelioma. Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the chest cavity and the membrane that surrounds the lungs in it’s most common form, known as pleural mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma, like other asbestos-related diseases, has a latency period of 20 to 40 years where it seems that there will be no asbestos health problems. The first symptom is shortness of breath during exercise. Since this is not an uncommon problem, few people seek medical attention when it first happens. As the mesothelioma gets worse, the shortness of breath also gets worse until the person can’t catch their breath even at rest, and breathing may be associated with significant chest pain.
If the mesothelioma diagnosis is detected before it metastasizes, it can be surgically removed. Rarely do people catch it at such an early stage. Most people are first diagnosed with mesothelioma after it has spread and can’t be entirely eliminated even with surgery. In these stages doctors can only try to slow its growth through the use of chemotherapy and radiation. There is no cure for mesothelioma, and few people live more than two years after it is first diagnosed.