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Asbestos Ingestion, Peritoneal Mesothelioma, and Digestive Cancers

Mesothelioma is most often associated with and likely caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. These fibers are small and lightweight and can easily become airborne where they can be inhaled. This has historically happened on work sites where asbestos was used before regulations made working with the material safer. Workers who inhaled the fibers were then at risk for being diagnosed with mesothelioma, most likely the pleural form, which involves the tissues around the lungs.

While pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of this type of cancer, because asbestos fibers are mostly inhaled, causing them to get lodged in the pleura and lungs, some people are diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma. This is a form of the cancer that starts in the tissue lining the abdominal cavity. How asbestos fibers get to the peritoneum is not fully understood, but a big part of it may be accidental ingestion.

peritoneal mesothelioma stomach cancer
Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second most common form of this rare type of cancer. It begins with tumor development in the peritoneum, the thin layer of tissue that surrounds organs in the abdominal cavity. From there the cancer may spread to the omentum, a layer of fat covering the abdomen, or to organs like the liver or the intestines. Symptoms of this type of mesothelioma include bowel obstruction, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, a feeling of fullness, fatigue, vomiting, and nausea.

As with pleural mesothelioma, this type is difficult to treat and is often diagnosed after it is advanced. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation may be used to try to shrink tumors. A newer type of chemotherapy that involves injecting drugs right into the abdomen is showing promise in treating peritoneal mesothelioma. Like other types of mesothelioma, the peritoneal form is most often associated with asbestos exposure. Researchers have been trying to determine how asbestos fibers get to the abdominal cavity to cause damage and the most likely route is through ingestion.

How Asbestos May Be Ingested

Pleural mesothelioma is most often caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. Someone breathes in these fibers and they get stuck in the tissues of the pleura or lungs and cause the damage that leads to cancer. Inhalation happens easily when someone is around asbestos fibers, as they are light become easily airborne. Ingestion is less likely, but still possible, and may be how the fibers get to the peritoneum to cause cancer there.

Many people diagnosed with mesothelioma worked in an environment with asbestos. Most at risk were construction workers and people working in and around ships, two areas where asbestos was heavily used for decades. Asbestos fibers in the air on these work sites could be inhaled by workers, but the fibers could also settle on food or water and end up being ingested. Even just getting fibers in the mouth from being in a dusty area could lead to swallowing and ingesting them. Workers may also swallow fibers by coughing up inhaled asbestos and swallowing the contaminated mucous.

While ingesting fibers on a contaminated work site is probably the most likely way that someone would end up with asbestos in the abdominal cavity, there are other possibilities. Water can become contaminated by asbestos, for instance. Water that flows through cement pipes that contains asbestos could become contaminated, as could water that is near a mine. Contamination from asbestos mines or other types of mines that happen to have naturally-occurring asbestos could potentially lead to ingestion.

Asbestos in Restaurants and Grocery Stores

Food prepared or sold in restaurants, cafeterias, and grocery stores could also potentially become contaminated with asbestos fibers, although this is the least likely way that someone might ingest asbestos. There have been incidents of contamination in locations like these. For example, a grocery store in Springfield, Illinois was temporarily closed in 2011 after workers improperly removed asbestos-containing flooring and released fibers into the air. This could have contaminated food in the store, which prompted the closing for cleanup and abatement.

Although in instances like this one the problem was caught before harm could be done, this is always a potential source of contamination. Stores and restaurants serving food could contaminate their products with asbestos fibers, which could then be ingested by consumers, if they do not safely handle asbestos-containing materials.

Asbestos in the Lymphatic System

Ingestion is not the only possible way that asbestos fibers could get to the abdomen and cause peritoneal mesothelioma. Inhaled fibers in the chest cavity may migrate from the interstitial fluid into the lymph nodes. The lymphatic system pulls this fluid into the lymph nodes and if there are fibers in that fluid, they can get dragged along. From the lymph nodes the fibers can easily get into the bloodstream, and from there they can move anywhere in the body, including the abdominal cavity.

Asbestos and Digestive Cancers

Peritoneal mesothelioma is not the only potential diagnosis that can come from ingesting asbestos fibers or from the migration of them to the abdominal cavity. Studies have linked asbestos to digestive cancers. One of these found a connection between long-term exposure to asbestos and colon, esophageal, liver, and rectal cancers. The study investigated over 2,000 former workers at an asbestos plant. They had a 50 percent greater incidence of digestive cancers as compared to a control group.

Another study looked at over 700 workers at lighthouses in Norway who served as keepers at any point between 1917 and 1967. A subset of those workers had consumed asbestos-contaminated water. This group was at a significantly increased risk of developing digestive cancers, with the greatest risk specifically for stomach cancer.

Identifying and Avoiding Ingestible Asbestos Fibers

For the average person, being exposed to asbestos through ingestion is unlikely. Those at a greater risk include anyone working with or around asbestos. This includes construction workers, shipyard workers, automotive and airplane mechanics, miners, and all types of industrial workers. While workplace safety regulations make exposure to asbestos less likely than in the past, the risk is always there. To avoid ingesting fibers these workers should keep all food and drink out of the area in which asbestos is present and should use masks and respirators to avoid inhaling fibers or getting them in the mouth.

If food or drinks are in an area in which there may be asbestos, identifying individual fibers by sight is impossible. To identify fibers requires specialized microscopy. A good rule of thumb, though, is to dispose of any food or drink that is in an area that could contain exposed asbestos or that has any type of dust that has settled on it.

Ingesting asbestos is not as common as inhaling it and both types of contamination are now less likely than they were many years ago. But, as long as asbestos is still in use and is still found in older buildings and ships, the risks of ingesting fibers remains. Be aware of the risks in your life and take steps to avoid inhaling or ingesting asbestos to reduce your risk of developing mesothelioma or digestive cancers.

Page edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.

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