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Mesothelioma is most often associated with inhalation of asbestos fibers. Asbestos fibers are small, lightweight, and can easily become airborne. Once these tiny fibers become airborne, they can easily be inhaled by people in the area. Historically, this has occurred on asbestos-containing work sites, usually before regulations were enacted to limit its use and improve safety. Workers who inhaled fibers were at risk fordeveloping mesothelioma, most likely the pleural form, involving the tissues around the lungs.
While pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of this type of cancer, some people are diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma. This is a form of the cancer with origins in the tissue lining of the abdominal cavity. While it is not completely understood how asbestos fibers find their way to the peritoneum, it may be due to accidental ingestion.
Peritoneal mesothelioma is the second most common form of this rare 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. It may also affect the liver and intestines. Symptoms of peritoneal 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 in its advanced stages. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation may be used to shrink tumors. A newer type of chemotherapy involving drugs injected directly right into the abdomen shows promise for treatment. Like other types of mesothelioma, the peritoneal form is most often associated with asbestos exposure. Researchers are currently investigating how asbestos fibers arrive in the abdominal cavity, though ingestion is the most likely culprit.
How Asbestos May Be Ingested
Pleural mesothelioma is most often caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers. After inhaling these tiny fibers, they become lodged in the tissues of the pleura or lungs, causing damage that leads to cancer. Inhalation occurs easily when someone is around asbestos, as fibers are light weight and easily become airborne. Ingestion is less likely, though possible. This may be howasbestos fibers get to the peritoneum.
Many people diagnosed with mesothelioma worked in environments with asbestos. Individuals employed in construction, shipbuilding, and ship maintenance, areas where asbestos was heavily used for decades, were most at risk. Airborne asbestos fibers on work sites could settle as dust, settling on food, water, or hands, ultimately leading to ingestion. Even getting fibers in the mouth from a dusty area could lead to swallowing them. Workers could also swallow fibers by coughing up inhaled asbestos and swallowing contaminated mucous.
While ingesting fibers on a contaminated work site is the most likely way asbestos could lodge in the abdominal cavity, there are other possibilities. For example, water can become contaminated by asbestos. Water flowing through asbestos-containing cement pipes could become contaminated, as could water near a mine. Contamination from asbestos or other mines 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. While this is less likely, there have been incidents of contamination in these locations. For example, in 2011, a grocery store in Springfield, Illinois was temporarily closed after workers removed flooring, releasing asbestos fibers into the air. This lead to possible food contamination in the store, leading the business to temporarily close for cleaning and abatement.
While this problem was caught before it became hazardous, in other situations the contamination could be discovered too late. Stores and restaurants serving food could contaminate products with asbestos fibers, causing customers to unknowingly ingest asbestos fibers. Therefore, it is important for people to understand how to safely handle asbestos-containing materials.
Asbestos in the Lymphatic System
Ingestion is not the only way asbestos fibers could infect the abdomen, causing peritoneal mesothelioma. Inhaled fibers in the chest cavity may migrate from interstitial fluid into the lymph nodes. The lymphatic system pulls this fluid into the lymph nodes. If the fluid contains asbestos fibers, those fibers can be transported to other areas of the body. From the lymph nodes, fibers can nter 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 asbestos fibers in the abdominal cavity. Studies have linked asbestos to digestive cancers. One of these studies found a connection between long-term asbestos exposures and colon, esophageal, liver, and rectal cancers. The study investigated over 2,000 former workers at an asbestos plant. Researchers found these workers had a 50 percent greater incidence of digestive cancers when compared to a control group.
Another study investigated over 700 lighthouse keepers in Norway. These keepers served between 1917 and 1967. Some of those workers consumed asbestos-contaminated water and had a significantly increased risk of developing digestive cancers. The greatest cancer risk was for cancer of the stomach.
Identifying and Avoiding Ingestion of Asbestos Fibers
For the average person, asbestos exposure through ingestion is unlikely. Those at a greater risk include those working with or around asbestos., including construction workers, shipyard workers, automotive and airplane mechanics, miners, and industrial workers. While workplace safety regulations currently make exposure to asbestos less likely, the risk remains. To avoid asbestos ingestion workers should keep all food and drink out of the area. They should also use proper safety equipment, including masks and respirators to avoid exposure to asbestos fibers.
If food or drinks are in an asbestos-containing area, identifying fibers by sight is impossible. Identifying asbestos fibers requires specialized microscopy. A good rule of thumb, however, is to dispose of food or drink in an area that could contain exposed asbestos, or if there is dust that could contain asbestos.
Ingesting asbestos is not as common as inhalation, and both types of contamination are now less likely than in years past. However, as long as asbestos is still in used or found in older buildings and ships, the risk of ingestion remains. It is important to be aware of the risks and to take steps to avoid inhalation or ingestion. These precautions could help prevent the development of mesothelioma or digestive cancers.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate 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.