You may have heard about asbestos, and wondered whether or not it exists in your home or office. Perhaps you are a veteran, and may possibly have been exposed to asbestos while serving your country. Asbestos exposure has been linked to a number of terrible diseases, including the cancer mesothelioma, which targets the lining of the chest cavity and lungs.
While there are certain sectors of the population that have an especially high level of risk for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases and conditions, the truth is that almost anyone could be at risk to develop this rare, but severe, form of cancer. Let’s take a look at why.
As you may be aware, asbestos was once a widely used building and insulating material. It was incorporated into Sheetrock, drywall, spray-in insulation, plastics and fabrics, and could be found in all areas of a building, from the attic to the walls to the plumbing and electrical systems. Moreover, it was used extensively in factories, mills, plants, shipyards, and other industrial locations. Wherever fire was a risk, or temperatures ran high, you can be sure that asbestos was used to help protect not only people but equipment as well.
For this reason, anyone who worked in a high-heat environment, or with products or materials that needed to be insulated against high heat or flame-such as a plumber, steel mill worker or electrician-is particularly at risk for developing mesothelioma. Especially vulnerable are those who performed their jobs prior to the tightening of asbestos regulations in the 1970s and 1980s.
Yet since a high percentage of family homes built before 1980 contain some asbestos-often in the attic insulation-nearly anyone who lives in an older home could also be at risk. Experts agree that most asbestos-containing materials are safe when they are intact and not liable to be disturbed, but if the asbestos-containing materials are disturbed-as would occur during remodeling, renovation or demolition-they can release a fine dust, made up of microscopic fibers, into the air. These fibers are what lead to mesothelioma. Therefore, avoid do-it-yourselfers, or anyone who is engaging in home repairs or remodels, should be aware that asbestos may be a concern. There are certain procedures that must be followed when dealing with asbestos, including wetting the materials in order to try to contain the fibers, and disposing of it properly.
Another factor is asbestos’s “friability.” As it ages, some asbestos materials can become friable, meaning that it can be disturbed by a very slight amount of pressure. For example, asbestos-containing acoustical ceiling tiles in a gymnasium could be impacted by a ball, and thereby release their particulate into the air of the gym.
Additionally, a number of instances of secondhand asbestos exposure have led to mesothelioma diagnoses. Since the asbestos dust is so fine, it can cling to people’s clothing, shoes, and even hair. Unless a worker who is routinely exposed to asbestos on the job either wears protective clothing or changes his or her clothing and showers before leaving the work site, chances are high that they will be carrying with them the microscopic, carcinogenic fibers. When they arrive home, they can then contaminate the home, and put at risk anyone with whom they come in contact. A spouse or child who hugs that worker, or who launders their work clothes, may be exposed to a significant amount of asbestos fibers over time.
While the odds of contracting mesothelioma increase with the amount and duration of exposure to asbestos, of course, there is no level of exposure which is considered safe. A person may be exposed to asbestos only once, for a brief period, and yet still develop the disease. Likewise, a person could work around asbestos-containing materials for years and remain perfectly healthy well into old age. There is simply no way to predict who will develop mesothelioma and who will not.
The unfortunate fact is that nearly everyone is at risk for developing mesothelioma, simply because of the widespread use of asbestos in the past, the fact that asbestos particulate can travel great distances on clothes, hair or even air currents, and the fact that the disease has a long latency perid. One instance of exposure to asbestos, even if it occurred years ago, may still result in a mesothelioma diagnosis in the future. If you know that you have been exposed to asbestos on a regular or ongoing basis, however, it’s important to let your physician know, that so you can begin the screening procedures for mesothelioma.