Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure
As many as 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer every year. This cancer, which most commonly affects the lining of the lungs, grows rapidly and aggressively, and is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos.
Until the 1970s, asbestos use was unregulated, and thousands of products contained asbestos fibers. While the most common asbestos-containing materials were construction products such as insulation and adhesives, even household items such as talcum powder were found to contain asbestos.
Industrial jobsites may have been among the most heavily contaminated areas, but homes, military vessels and even large geographical areas have also been contaminated by asbestos. When asbestos-containing products are broken, damaged or disturbed, the fibers enter the air, where they are easily inhaled or ingested. They can then become lodged in the pleura that surrounds the lungs, stomach or heart.
Since the first conclusive link between mesothelioma and asbestos exposure was developed in 1964, studies have worked to prove exactly how the fibers cause the cancer once they have entered the body. After asbestos has been inhaled, the thin fibers can easily become trapped in the lining of the lungs, causing small biological and genetic changes that eventually result in the development of cancer.
Some scientists believe that asbestos exposure causes cells to change their natural function and become cancerous, while other studies suggest that asbestos-triggered DNA damage leads to cancerous mutations. These cancerous changes are most common in people who have inhaled large quantities of asbestos over a prolonged period of time, but even short periods of exposure have the potential to cause mesothelioma.
Shipbuilders, construction workers, plant/factory workers and auto mechanics are among those who are most at risk for asbestos exposure and related diseases. However, some cases of mesothelioma have been diagnosed in people who were exposed to asbestos from a secondhand source, such as through the skin or clothing of a family member who worked with asbestos.