Southern California residents, who are already concerned about damage to their homes and property because of the ongoing wildfire, may have reason to be concerned about hazardous effects to their health from asbestos exposure and the asbestos cancer mesothelioma, say officials.
Although many people think of asbestos as being outlawed, the truth is that it remains legal in small quantities in new construction, and may be present in much larger quantities in any home or other structure built before 1980. Asbestos was widely use as an insulation material, as well as in drywall, flooring, ceiling tiles and roofing shingles, and a host of other consumer and construction products.
The wildfire, which has been raging for more than a week, may release asbestos particulate into the air when it damages or destroys homes. The microscopic fibers of the asbestos, which are generally considered to be safe when they are intact, can be extremely hazardous after they have been disturbed, because they become respirable. When people breathe them in, the needlelike fibers can then embed themselves into the lungs, as well as into a special lining of the lungs and body cavities called the mesothelium – leading to a rare but aggressive form of cancer known as mesothelioma.
High winds, which help spread the wildfires, may also allow the asbestos particulate to travel great distances and to remain airborne for longer. Therefore, the American Lung Association of California recommends that Southern California residents remain indoors as much as possible. If outdoor activity is unavoidable – particularly for those who are in close proximity to the fire, such as firefighters or other rescue personnel – respirators should be worn.
One of the complications of mesothelioma is that it may not become symptomatic until up to 50 years after the exposure to asbestos has begun. Additionally, its symptoms, which include shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue and chest pain, may be initially identified as symptoms of another, more common respiratory illness, leading to a misdiagnosis.
Often, a diagnosis of mesothelioma is not made until the cancer has reached a very late stage, at which time treatment is challenging. The earlier mesothelioma is diagnosed, the better. In its early stages, surgery may be an option, whereas in the later stages of mesothelioma the goal will be to make the patient as comfortable and pain-free as possible.