Virtually no aspect of the construction field has been untouched by asbestos. Particularly during the mid-twentieth century, when a boom in babies led to a boom in construction, this so-called miracle mineral was widely used at every stage of commercial and residential construction. Unfortunately, however, the widespread use of this mineral has led to a number of cases of a rare, aggressive cancer called mesothelioma – and that number is only expected to increase in the coming decade.
Asbestos can be added to cement, plastics, wallboard and tiles, and other materials commonly used in the construction industry.
When asbestos fibers become “friable” – meaning that they can be easily released into the surrounding air – anyone who is working in the surrounding area without protective gear is susceptible to inhaling this toxic particulate. This means that construction workers who are exposed to asbestos on a regular basis, and for an extended period of time, have a higher-than-average risk to develop mesothelioma. Once inside the body, the fibers become lodged in the mesothelium, a thin membrane surrounding the internal organs and lining the body cavities, where they can turn malignant. Malignant pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of this cancer, but it can also strike the stomach (peritoneal mesothelioma) and the heart (pericardial mesothelioma).
Once diagnosed, most mesothelioma patients have a very brief life expectancy – less than two years, on average. Mesothelioma is currently considered incurable, although it can be treated to an extent with chemotherapy, radiation and pain medications. An unusual aspect of mesothelioma is that it can take between 20 and 50 years to develop within the body. This long latency period means that most patients are senior citizens, and may already be retired from the career during which they were exposed to asbestos. If you or a family member worked in the construction or building industry, especially in the decades between 1940 and 1980, it’s imperative that you inform your doctor of your potential exposure to asbestos, and undergo testing for mesothelioma.