Although many people think of mesothelioma—the cancer caused by asbestos—as a blue-collar disease, the truth is that no one is immune. Dentists are among the occupational groups which face a higher than average risk of developing this disease.
Asbestos has been used in the field of dentistry, as a lining material for casting rings, since 1930. A naturally occurring group of minerals that was once highly prized as a non-flammable, non-conductive insulating material, asbestos is also a known carcinogen. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos; however, continued exposure naturally increases the concentration of asbestos fibers that are inhaled, thereby increasing the odds of developing an asbestos-related disease.
Since dentists work in small, confined examination rooms—and since they usually don’t take precautions against inhaling asbestos particulate, because they may not even be aware of the hazards—they are at a greater risk than the general population.
Mesothelioma occurs when the asbestos particulate’s microscopic fibers, after being inhaled, lodge themselves into a soft tissue that lines the lungs. They cause damage to the DNA of this tissue, the cells of which then begin to replicate and divide uncontrollably. A diffuse tumor develops, although symptoms of the tumor’s presence may not surface for another 20 to 50 years. This means that when the mesothelioma is eventually diagnosed, it is already very advanced.
Most cases of this cancer are inoperable, and tend to be less responsive than other forms to therapies such as radiation and chemotherapy. Several experimental and alternative treatments are available, but mesothelioma’s prognosis is usually grim. Most patients die just a few months after being diagnosed. Annually, 20,000 people die of mesothelioma around the world.
Anyone who suspects that they may have been exposed to asbestos, including dentists, should carefully monitor their health in conjunction with a physician.