Secondhand Exposure to Asbestos and Mesothelioma

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Asbestos, a mineral material which lends itself to many different construction and industrial applications because of its extreme resistance to fire and heat, as well as its strength and flexibility, is one of the most ubiquitous building substances around. It can be found in floor tilesceiling tiles, wallboard, joist compound, shingles and siding, insulation, boilers, wiring and pipe systems, and even in fabric such as fire curtains and ironing board covers. Asbestos is a prime component on board ships and in the clutches and brake shoes of automobiles.

As we have come to understand within the past half-century, however, asbestos is also a deadly carcinogen and can be extremely toxic to those who work around it. Asbestos exposure leads to a number of painful and fatal diseases, including the severe cancer mesothelioma, which most commonly affects the membranous lining of the lungs and thoracic cavity. It is usually considered an industrial disease, since asbestos is present in so many workplaces, including mills, factories, shipyards, and construction sites. Ninety percent of mesothelioma cases can be traced directly back to exposure to asbestos, and most often that exposure has happened while on the job.

Yet the men and women who have worked directly with this fibrous mineral material are not the only ones who are at risk for developing mesothelioma. More and more, we are learning that this disease can actually occur as a result of secondhand exposure to asbestos. Let’s take a closer look at why.

Asbestos, although a mineral rock, is actually composed of microscopic strands of fiber. These fibers have a tendency to become “friable,” or easily damaged, as they age. When asbestos material is friable, it can disintegrate into a fine particulate under the slightest pressure. This particulate, which is often referred to as asbestos dust, can remain airborne for long periods and be blown great distances. It can also cling to fabric, shoes, hair and skin—which means that anyone who is exposed to the asbestos dust may potentially, albeit unknowingly, expose others as well.

For example, let’s say that a pipefitter wears coveralls to work, but doesn’t change them at the end of his shift. Instead, he goes directly home and hugs his wife and children. Later, he changes out of his work clothes and throws them in the laundry room, where a family member will undoubtedly shake the excess dust from them before laundering them. The pipefitter has brought the toxic asbestos right into his home, inadvertently exposing his family to it. Over time, his wife and or children may develop mesothelioma or another asbestos disease, simply because they were exposed to the asbestos dust on an ongoing basis. Although it’s true that asbestos related diseases are more likely to develop with prolonged or repeated exposure to asbestos, there is no level of exposure that is currently considered safe. Even one instance of contact with a person whose clothes are contaminated with asbestos may be enough to lead to a mesothelioma diagnosis later in life.

The asbestos fibers, which are sharp and needle-like, can burrow deep into the soft tissues of the human body. Particularly vulnerable is a membrane called the mesothelium, which surrounds and protects the lungs and the inner wall of the chest cavity. It is virtually impossible for your body to remove the asbestos fibers from the mesothelium once they have been inhaled, and they may eventually lead to malignancy, causing the surrounding cells to replicate erratically.

Mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos is an unusual disease, in that it may take years to become painful or obvious enough to be symptomatic. Even when symptoms do appear, they are often mistaken as symptoms of other, less serious conditions such as a chest cold, the flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, or simply old age. These symptoms can include wheezing, hoarseness, chest pain, shortness of breath, and coughing. By the time a diagnosis of mesothelioma is made, the cancer is usually at an advanced stage, and little can be done to halt its further progress. Palliative care can be provided to make the patient more comfortable, and research into treatments and a cure for mesothelioma is ongoing.

Those caregivers and family members who are developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases as a result of their close proximity to primary asbestos workers are considered to be the “second wave” of asbestos’s victims. Yet no matter what the cause or origin of the cancer, there is no denying that this is a devastating disease and one which is all the more tragic because it could have been prevented with proper safety precautions, or a less aggressive use of asbestos in the building and manufacturing trades. If you have been living with someone who was employed in one of these trades, or who served on board a ship or worked in a metalworking facility, please take the time to educate yourself about the symptoms of mesothelioma and the dangers of asbestos.