Most of us are aware of the toxins in our environment that could be detrimental to our health, like pollution, mold, and secondhand smoke. But many people don’t really think about another danger that could be hidden in their walls, the shingles on the roof, or the brake pads of their car: asbestos. Asbestos is a natural fiber that has been mined for decades because of its fire resistant properties. When disturbed, we can inhale these fibers and then they stick to the linings of our organs. Because they’re so durable, our bodies can’t break them down and get rid of the foreign toxin. Instead, anywhere from 10-50 years later, the symptoms of Mesothelioma might start to show.
Mesothelioma, a rare cancer, is known to be caused by exposure to asbestos. The cancer can develop in the lining of the abdomen, chest, or lungs. Pleural mesothelioma, or the type that develops in the lungs, is the most common resulting in 80% of cases. Regardless of the type, patients typically see nonspecific symptoms at first. The earlier symptoms of mesothelioma can include shortness of breath, chest pain, or lack of appetite. This leads to many believing they have the flu or another common, less serious ailment. Being aware of potential asbestos exposure is essential for an early diagnosis. It’s important to also remember secondhand exposure as a serious risk, if any loved ones have worked with asbestos. Though there are only 3,000 cases diagnosed each year, it’s estimated that 20 million people are at risk of developing this cancer and another 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos in their workplaces each year.
Since this disease is so difficult to diagnose, it can sometimes take months for an official diagnosis to be made. In most cases, the disease has already progressed to a later, harder to treat stage. As such, the prognosis for mesothelioma patients is generally very poor. . Recently, there have been great strides made in developing better mesothelioma treatment methods and diagnostic techniques. Immunotherapy, for example, has shown promise for mesothelioma patients in a variety of clinical trials. Initiatives like the Cancer Moonshot 2020, a collaboration like no other to cure cancer, and Microsoft’s Project Hanover, which seeks to use artificial intelligence to solve cancer, also bring hope to patients for the future.
Though a cure for mesothelioma is still likely a ways off, there are steps we can take to help eliminate and prevent further mesothelioma cases. Asbestos is still not banned in the United States, even though 52 other countries have banned the toxin because of its health risks. Recent progress, however, gives hope for a future ban. Over the summer, the Frank R. Lautenberg Act was passed to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act, which allowed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate existing chemicals for environmental and public health risks. On November 29th, their list of the first ten chemicals they will investigate included asbestos. Though this news doesn’t promise a ban on asbestos anytime soon, it’s a huge step in the right direction.
In the meantime, the best prevention is to continue raising awareness on the dangers of asbestos and educating loved ones. Together our voices can help make a difference in banning asbestos and saving millions of lives!