Asbestos and Mesothelioma

By Levin Simes
August 31, 2011

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral composed of microscopic clusters that can become airborne if disturbed. Because asbestos is a carcinogen, airborne asbestos fibers pose a serious health hazard. People who are subjected to prolonged asbestos exposure face a significant risk of developing a variety of conditions, including fibrosis, asbestosis, asbestos lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma.

The process that leads to the development of mesothelioma typically begins when a person inhales asbestos microfibers. These fibers become embedded in lung tissue where their durability allows them to remain for years. The body’s immune defenses attempt to eliminate the harmful foreign materials by releasing a type of white blood cells called macrophages. Normally, macrophages ingest and remove foreign materials, preventing further damage. Unfortunately, the durability of asbestos fibers renders macrophages ineffective. Unaware of this, the immune system continues to release macrophages; this often causes further damage in the form of fibrotic scarring of the lung tissue and an associated reduction in lung capacity.

Eventually, the presence of carcinogenic asbestos in the body leads to the development of asbestos cancer, malignant mesothelioma and/or a host of other health problems.
Tracing Mesothelioma to its Source: Occupational Asbestos Exposure.

Asbestos fibers are strong, flexible and fire resistant. These properties make asbestos an excellent insulator, which is why it was used extensively in building materials and commercial products. The use of asbestos was curbed following regulation of the mineral in the 1970s.

Studies suggest that more than 8 million Americans have been exposed to some form of asbestos in the work place. In fact, occupational asbestos exposure is the most common asbestos-linked cause of malignant mesothelioma. Prior to asbestos regulation, factory workers, construction workers, dock workers, asbestos miners and workers in other industries faced the risk of occupational asbestos exposure.

The families of workers exposed to asbestos also faced a significant risk of exposure. The durability of asbestos is such that workers would often carry the fibers home with them on their skin, clothes and/or hair. Over the years, this type of secondary occupational asbestos exposure caused a significant number of indirect asbestos injuries. As a result, when a mesothelioma diagnosis is confirmed, a detailed family history must be conducted in order to determine where the exposure to asbestos occurred.

More About Asbestos

There are six members of the asbestos family: amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite, actinolite and chrysotile. Amosite and chrysotile asbestos were the two most common types used in building materials.

Although asbestos has been linked with serious health conditions like asbestosis and mesothelioma, the mineral does not always pose an immediate hazard. It is only when asbestos or asbestos-containing materials are disturbed that they release fibrous particles into the air. Airborne asbestos poses the real health risk. Asbestos regulation has inhibited the production and use of asbestos-laden products. While this has stopped any further spread of asbestos materials, it has done little to curb the effects of those still in circulation. Asbestos was an extremely common insulation used in construction. Thousands upon thousands of buildings and homes throughout the country are still rife with asbestos materials. This does not pose a direct threat, except when the asbestos is disturbed, in which case it can result in hazardous exposure. Asbestos removal services specialize in the handling of disturbed asbestos. Removal is a hazard in itself, as it releases large amounts of asbestos fibers into the air. Specialists recommend that asbestos be removed only as a last resort. Repair is recommended if the source of disruption can be contained.

Exactly how asbestos causes mesothelioma has yet to be fully explained. A number of competing theories have been introduced by scientists to account for this causation. One theory states that asbestos fibers may scar certain cells in the protective lining of organs, known as the mesothelium, eventually leading to the development of cancer.

Another popular theory states that asbestos fibers have properties that can change the normal structure of cells in the body. The theory states that the fibers can corrupt the natural ability of these cells to divide at a healthy rate. This new unnatural cell division then produces this form of cancer.

What is not disputed, however, is the fact that exposure to asbestos causes every form of mesothelioma. This much has been proven scientifically by a staggering amount of evidence showing a strong correlation between exposure length and intensity and mesothelioma development.

Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Occupational asbestos exposure was extremely common throughout the 20th century and remains a threat today. From asbestos mining facilities and the factories in which asbestos-laden products were manufactured to the construction and automotive industries, occupational asbestos exposure was widespread.
The combination of poorly ventilated facilities and excessive levels of airborne asbestos served as a breeding ground for disaster. Although knowledge of the dangers associated with asbestos exposure was limited prior to asbestos regulation, many asbestos product manufacturers and mining companies were aware of the hazards. Rather than alert their employees or provide adequate safety measures, they instead opted to protect business interests by remaining silent. The consequences were devastating. Asbestos exposure is known to cause an incurable disease, mesothelioma, and a number of potentially fatal lung disorders, including asbestosis. The occurrences of these diseases increased dramatically in the 1960’s and 1970’s as asbestos gained wider use, but the companies producing and using asbestos took no steps to protect their employees from exposure to this hazardous material. Even today, new cases of mesothelioma continue to be diagnosed at a high rate. Because of the long incubation period of asbestos related diseases, victim’s who were exposed to asbestos many decades ago, can now develop these devastating diseases and have no idea what caused them to become sick.

Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Workers employed in industries involving asbestos were not the only people exposed to asbestos. Sadly, many people with whom they were in close contact were also affected.
Secondary asbestos exposure refers to indirect exposure to asbestos. This was most commonly associated with the family members of those faced with occupational asbestos exposure. Asbestos fibers would become trapped in a worker’s clothes, skin or hair, transporting the carcinogenic material from the workplace to the home.

Asbestos Inhalation

Asbestos is a friable mineral, meaning that it easily crumbles. When asbestos is disturbed, fragmented asbestos fibers are released into the air, creating a hazardous atmosphere. When inhaled, asbestos microfibers can pass through the natural filtration system of the lungs and become embedded in the lung tissue.

The body’s natural defense mechanisms attempt to destroy the foreign asbestos fibers by releasing immune cells called macrophages. However, asbestos is an extremely durable material that cannot be destroyed by the body’s defenses. Nonetheless, the body attempts to destroy the asbestos fibers by continuously releasing macrophages. This can cause severe scarring of the lung tissue, which in turn reduces lung capacity.

Asbestos embedded in the lung tissue eventually leads to the development of asbestosis, asbestos lung cancer or pleural mesothelioma. Inhaled asbestos fibers can also pass into the bloodstream, where they can cause pericardial mesothelioma, or into the abdomen, where they can cause peritoneal mesothelioma.

Asbestos Regulation

Growing public awareness and general concern over the health hazards associated with asbestos exposure led to the first steps toward regulation of the carcinogenic mineral in the early 1970s. The Environmental Protection Agency issued an asbestos phase out rule that banned virtually all products containing asbestos materials in 1989.
Unfortunately, regulation does little to quell the effects of asbestos products currently in use. Many people are unaware of the presence of asbestos in their old cars, homes, and products. Although steps have been taken to ensure that asbestos is not used as a component in most products, the risk of asbestos exposure remains.

Asbestos Removal

Asbestos was a common insulation material used in homes built before asbestos regulation went into effect. Many homes throughout the United States remain lined with asbestos insulation materials. It seems logical that the safest thing to do would be to remove and replace this potentially dangerous insulation, or demolish the building. In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Asbestos removal is a major process that can cause the release of dangerous levels of asbestos into the air. Asbestos insulation is not a health hazard as long as the asbestos remains undisturbed. Only once asbestos is exposed does it pose a threat. If asbestos insulation has been damaged, removal is still not recommended. Rather, repairing the damage is considerably easier and safer than removal.

If asbestos removal is required, or if an asbestos-laden building is being demolished, environmental specialists are typically involved. These specialists are trained in asbestos removal and can limit the amount of asbestos that is released into the atmosphere.

Related Resources

Ready For Your Free Consultation?

// Make a reference to the form field