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The Truth Behind Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure

Malignant mesothelioma is a form of cancer that is typically associated with exposure to carcinogens found in asbestos, a fibrous material once commonly used in home insulation, auto parts, and in the manufacture of vinyl products (such as flooring). Although mesothelioma is quite rare, when it does strike, it does so aggressively, with tumors growing and spreading at an alarming rate. Early detection is crucial in the efficacy of treatment, but often mesothelioma goes undiagnosed until it has reached the later stages, leaving its victims with few options outside of palliative care.

Exposure often occurs because of work

Exposure to asbestos was most common in people who worked in certain industries that brought them into constant contact with asbestos-containing materials. People who worked in home construction, for example, often worked without adequate protection against asbestos inhalation and ingestion while installing home insulation containing the material. Also, asbestos is often seen in the “popcorn ceilings” so popular during the 1970s and 1980s. It was also prominently used in the manufacture of auto parts and vinyl flooring, so factory workers were also often exposed to asbestos on a daily basis for hours at a time.

Exposure can come from non-occupational sources

There are pockets across the globe of people who are being diagnosed with mesothelioma, but who never worked a day in their lives in a factory producing asbestos-containing products, nor in construction. However, some towns where asbestos processing plants and factories have been defunct for years are now seeing an increase in the incidence of malignant mesothelioma, presumably because of the nearness of airborne asbestos fibers.

Since mesothelioma has a long latency period (the time from initial carcinogenic exposure to the actual diagnosis based on symptoms), many diagnoses are not made until years and even decades after the time when the person was exposed to the asbestos fibers that caused their cancer to develop.

California: a naturally-occurring asbestos hot spot

The state of California is geologically comprised, in large part, of a type of rock called “ultramafic rock,” which can give rise to naturally-occurring asbestos. According to reports from X, 44 out of California’s 58 counties contain ultramafic rock in their crust, rendering the state a hot spot for naturally-occurring asbestos. Although asbestos is not dangerous to living creatures when it remains below the surface of the earth, when deposits of asbestos are exposed to the elements, erosion by wind and water can carry the fibers aloft, thus allowing them to be breathed in by any people who may be nearby—and increase their risk of developing mesothelioma exponentially.

Mesothelioma in children

There have been reports of mesothelioma occurring in children who have never had direct contact with asbestos themselves. However, children who lived near asbestos-producing factories or deposits of asbestos that were exposed to the elements were at greater risk of developing the disease, and some cases of childhood mesothelioma have been seen in children whose only exposure to asbestos was the fibers leftover on the surface of their parent’s clothing at the end of his or her workday. Thus, even secondhand asbestos exposure in relatively minute quantities can carry a heavy risk of mesothelioma development.

Other risk factors

Asbestos is not the only risk factor involved in the development of malignant mesothelioma. There are several others, some of which are only recently being discovered.

Other carcinogenic fibers

Recent research has shown that asbestos may not be the only fiber that gives rise to mesothelioma cancer. There are fibrous minerals occurring in nature with a similar molecular structure to asbestos, such as chabazite and erionite. There have been reports of people living near large erionite deposits developing mesothelioma in spite of never having been exposed to asbestos a day in their lives.

Genetic factors

Genetics seem to play a large role in mesothelioma development, as well, for some people who had daily exposure to asbestos over the course of decades were never diagnosed with mesothelioma in spite of their long-term exposure.

Multiple risk factors combined

However, studies have shown that people with multiple risk factors are the most likely to develop mesothelioma. For example, people who worked with asbestos and who smoked cigarettes for a long period of time carry a greater risk of developing mesothelioma than people who worked with asbestos but did not smoke.

Age

Mesothelioma is most commonly diagnosed in males who are at or past the age of retirement. Although there is an association between gender and age and the development of mesothelioma, it is thought that this correlation is due to the long period of dormancy that mesothelioma has, and the fact that during the time when asbestos insulation was most commonly used in homes, many construction workers handling it were young males, having since retired and become symptomatic, decades after their days of being exposed to asbestos on a regular basis.

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