Mesothelioma: A Dormant Threat
Written by Sarah Wallace | Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center, New York City, New York, USA
The industrialised world is truly a marvel; through years of innovation and invention, society has been rewarded with extreme technological advances. However, there is inherent risk involved with the construction of modern infrastructure and development. Perhaps the most dangerous, lasting effect of modernisation is asbestos and its role in industrialisation. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that at least one in three Europeans will risk exposure to asbestos, either at work or in the environment.1 While the dangers of asbestos are becoming increasingly understood, the prevalence and the severity of mesothelioma, a rare disease caused by asbestos exposure, remain relatively less-known.
Dangers of Asbestos
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring silicate mineral, which appears as long, fibrous crystals. The mineral was historically mined up until the 19th century. Due to asbestos’ strong durability and effective fire resistance, it was used heavily in construction and manufacturing throughout the majority of the 20th century. However, as cancer began to affect labourers, especially within the realm of development, scientists quickly ascertained that asbestos was remarkably unsafe.2 Asbestos’ crystalline composition molecularly predisposes the substance to friability, a condition in which the material fractures and splinters into tiny dust particles. The inhalation of these small fibres is extremely carcinogenic and dangerous.
Legislation of the one-time wonder mineral has ramped up greatly over the past 30 years, as 55 countries have outlawed the substance. Currently, asbestos is banned throughout the entire European Union (EU) including the UK.3 However, existing asbestos still poses a threat, especially in older homes and buildings constructed before 1980. Risk assessments, asbestos abatement, and asbestos removal by licenced contractors is highly recommended. More information for practices in the UK can be found here.4 Today, asbestos is not banned in the USA, China, Russia, Canada, or India.
What Is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer that affects the thin layer of tissue covering internal organs, known as the mesothelium.5 On average, there are 2,700 new cases per year, with the onset of symptoms occurring anywhere from 10–50 years after primary exposure. According to Cancer Research UK, mesothelioma rates have increased by 71% since the early 1990s, averaging seven new cases diagnosed every day.6 The disease can manifest in three separate forms: pleural, peritoneal, and pericardial mesothelioma. Pleural is the most common form, which manifests in the lining of the lungs. Peritoneal and pericardial remain more rare, affecting the lining of the abdomen and heart, respectively.
It is accepted in the medical field that, like most incidences of exposure-based illness, the susceptibility of a person to disease is based on the amount of time exposed to the risk factor. While international health organisations have agreed that no amount of asbestos exposure is safe, the chances of developing mesothelioma are amplified exponentially for those who work or live in a contaminated environment. Initial diagnosis of mesothelioma can be difficult, due to its rarity and somewhat non-disease specific, common symptoms: fatigue, chest/abdomen pain, and weakness. Once the presence of the disease has been determined, the prognosis is generally quite bleak.7 Most mesothelioma patients face an average life expectancy of 6–12 months, and a survival rate of just 20% after the first year.
Treatment of mesothelioma is generally a multimodal approach. Upon diagnosis, patients will have to visit several different medical specialists, including oncologists and pulmonary, cardiac, or gastric experts. Conventional treatment, depending on the advancement of the cancer, as well as the patient’s age, may consist of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. In cases of pleural mesothelioma, the lung, rib(s), and diaphragm may be surgically removed. However, as medicine advances, several new treatment options are now developing. The lead emerging treatment is immunotherapy, enhancing the body’s ability to fight cancer by amplifying the immune system’s response to external stimuli. The use of cryotherapy to freeze tumours has also been successful in patients. With these advances, there is now more hope than ever in treating mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness
Both government and non-government organisations alike have condemned asbestos usage, but its lingering effects and severe danger still exist in the modern world. As more patients succumb to the disease, mesothelioma awareness and education grows more imperative. September 26th 2017 is Mesothelioma Awareness Day, in which the primary initiative is to attain an educational spotlight for asbestos-related cancers and illness, and to ultimately push for a global ban. Asbestos’ role as a once-miracle utility for building and manufacturing cannot be undone, but through education and awareness, the misfortune of mesothelioma and asbestos illness may be eradicated for future generations.8
- World Health Organization. At least one in three Europeans can be exposed to asbestos at work and in the environment. 2015. Available at: http://www.euro.who.int/en/media-centre/sections/press-releases/2015/04/at-least-one-in-three-europeans-can-be-exposed-to-asbestos-at-work-and-in-the-environment. Last accessed: 24 August 2017.
- Asbestos Awareness Center. Asbestos. 2017. Available at: https://www.maacenter.org/asbestos/. Last accessed: 24 August 2017.
- Asbestos Nation. Asbestos bans around the world. 2017. Available at: http://www.asbestosnation.org/facts/asbestos-bans-around-the-world/. Last accessed: 24 August 2017.
- Health and Safety Executive. Managing and working with asbestos. 2017. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos/detail.htm. Last accessed: 24 August 2017.
- Asbestos Awareness Center. Mesothelioma. 2017. Available at: https://www.maacenter.org/mesothelioma/. Last accessed: 24 August 2017.
- Cancer Research UK. Mesothelioma statistics. 2017. Available at: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/mesothelioma#heading-Zero. Last accessed: 24 August 2017.
- Asbestos Awareness Center. Mesothelioma prognosis. 2017. Available at: https://www.maacenter.org/mesothelioma/prognosis/. Last accessed: 24 August 2017.
- Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization Goals. Available at: http://www.asbestosdiseaseawareness.org/. Last accessed: 24 August 2017.