Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that, while deadly, is not nearly as common as, say, lung, breast, or prostate cancer. So why do you keep seeing and hearing commercials and advertisements about it?
In short, because mesothelioma is an entirely preventable illness. The only known cause is exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that has been used throughout the 20th and 21sst centuries in building materials, automotive parts, fire-retardant coatings, and a range of other industrial and commercial uses.
Asbestos’s toxicity has been well-documented since the early 1900s, but the fibrous mineral continues to be a threat for 2 main key reasons:
- The sheer number of buildings and products that contain asbestos
- Its legality in the United States
While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates which kinds of products can contain asbestos, there is currently no ban on the substance. The U.S. continues to import hundreds of tons of asbestos each year from mines in Russia, China, and elsewhere, and imports have actually increased in recent years.
With so much asbestos in America’s schools, homes, workplaces, and automobiles, it’s little surprise that the U.S. sees 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma a year.
But mesothelioma is just one of several diseases caused by asbestos exposure. Including the various diseases and respiratory ailments, asbestos is responsible for an estimated 12,000-15,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Worldwide, that figure climbs to 100,000.
It’s important to understand, however, that mesothelioma in particular has a very long latency period, meaning a mesothelioma patient may not develop symptoms for 20-50 years after being exposed to asbestos. That makes the source of exposure difficult to track, allowing those responsible for the exposure to get off scot-free.
How Are People Exposed to Asbestos?
Asbestos is most dangerous in “friable” form — that is, in a crumbly or powdery state. When disturbed — such as during construction or building renovation — it is released into the air as dust, and asbestos is most deadly when breathed in through the lungs.
The grim reality is that most people who get exposed to asbestos are workers. Occupational risk of asbestos-related diseases is most common among veterans of the U.S. military, construction workers, miners, and shipyard and factory workers.
However, because asbestos was used so often as a fire retardant throughout the 20th century, many old buildings remain havens for asbestos, lurking silently in plumbing fixtures, insulation, and drywall. Public schools, mid-century homes, factories, and housing projects are all more likely than not to contain asbestos.
Accordingly, the risk of asbestos exposure takes on both racial and class dimensions: Those living or working in older, more decrepit buildings — be it a school, office, or public housing — face greater risk. Public school teachers, for example, face a disproportionately higher risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases than most other professions.
That uncomfortable truth is playing out right now in the city of Philadelphia, where a number of schools were recently forced to close after asbestos was found in friable form. Hundreds of students and faculty may have been exposed in the uncertain window between the release of asbestos fibers and their eventual containment.
With largely working-class and African-American student bodies, the Philadelphia school system reveals the ugly socio-economic side of the asbestos problem, a problem that is by no means limited to the city of Philadelphia. It is truly nationwide.
Many asbestos-containing buildings are in some cases more than a hundred years old, and municipal budget restraints often allow them to fall into states of disrepair, thereby worsening the threat of asbestos exposure with age and decay.
The average age of an American public school is 50 years — well within the window of widespread asbestos use. Water utilities for decades relied on an asbestos-containing cement that leaches asbestos into water piping. Roughly two-thirds of homes in the U.S. were built before 1980, meaning there’s a good chance two-thirds of homes in the U.S. contain asbestos.
With so much asbestos currently lurking in the country’s infrastructure, and with such a long latency period between exposure and the development of symptoms, it’s exceedingly difficult to anticipate how the asbestos health crisis will play out in the future.
What’s So Bad About Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is not the most common type of cancer but it is one of the deadliest. The percentage of patients who survive 5 years after diagnosis is just 10%. Survival depends largely on how early the cancer is discovered and how old and healthy the patient is.
The extremely long latency period between asbestos exposure and the development of symptoms means treatment is often too little too late. To make matters worse, many of the early symptoms are similar to respiratory infections like pneumonia or influenza, leading doctors to misdiagnose the illness.
All types of mesothelioma are malignant, meaning the tumors that form will spread to other parts of the body if left untreated, and there are several different types of mesothelioma.
Pleural mesothelioma is located in the soft tissue that surrounds the lungs, while peritoneal mesothelioma affects the lining of the abdomen. The pleural variety is much more often the deadlier of the two.
Such a high mortality rate, long latency period, and irregularity combine to make mesothelioma an extremely difficult disease to diagnose and treat — not to mention research.
What Can Families Do?
Unlike many forms of cancer, which sometimes are hereditary or appear at random, mesothelioma is an entirely preventable illness. Its only known cause is exposure to asbestos. Oftentimes that exposure was the result of negligence on behalf of an employer, landlord, or business who did not heed precautions when it comes to the safe handling of asbestos.
Thankfully, mesothelioma patients and their families do have recourse.
Defunct companies that used asbestos or manufactured asbestos-containing products were court-ordered to put aside money for future victims of asbestos. These trust funds total an estimated $30 Billion.
In addition, families can file mesothelioma lawsuits against the still-existing companies that are responsible for a person’s asbestos exposure. Successful lawsuits brought against negligent asbestos-related companies typically result in settlements valuing anywhere from $1 Million to $1.4 Million.
For working families, the loss of a loved one due to a preventable illness like mesothelioma is unbearable. Financial compensation cannot account for that loss, but it can help alleviate some of the burden. Short of a complete ban on asbestos in the United States, a lawsuit may be the only avenue for recompense.