Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was widely used in many industries for its heat-insulating properties. Mining, manufacturing and use of products containing asbestos can produce dust, made from the needle-like fibers of the mineral. These fibers may lodge in body tissues such as the lungs, abdomen or heart and over time, cause cancer or other serious disease to develop which are often deadly.
Occupational exposure to asbestos is the most common cause of asbestos-related illness but family members can be affected as well. Asbestos may have been tracked from the jobsite on clothing or shoes, where it is brought into the home to contaminate the air, food preparation areas and other surfaces.
Common occupations related to asbestos illness include:
- Construction workers
- Shipyard workers
- Steel workers
- Automotive workers
- Heating and air conditioning workers
- Military personnel
- Others who were exposed to asbestos products or manufacturing
Many victims or loved ones of those who were exposed to asbestos and became ill or died due to asbestos exposure have filed lawsuits against manufacturers and other organizations. In many cases, compensation is available through an asbestos fund established to help victims or family members of who were injured or died due to asbestos exposure.
Asbestos and Cancer
Asbestos is a needle-like fibrous mineral which can be inhaled or ingested as dust particles. Even though asbestos dust may appear to be a powder, microscopic examination will show its dangerous shape. Asbestos that is inhaled or ingested will become lodged in body tissues, similar to a needle.
Because of its shape of asbestos, the body cannot easily dislodge the fiber and over a period of time, nearby cells, often mesothelial cells will try to surround or engulf the fibers to protect the rest of the body. This type of body function usually involves bacteria, other cells or foreign material which will be destroyed by the engulfing cells. In the case of asbestos, the mineral cannot be destroyed and will remain lodged in the area.
Over a period of time, the tissue will become inflamed and the immune system may attempt to destroy the inflammatory tissue. This may ultimately lead to tissue scarring and genetic mutations at the site of asbestos. As the DNA changes or mutates, uncontrolled cell growth may begin. Scar tissue may also prevent proper functioning of the organ, such as pleural thickening which leads to difficulty breathing from lung restriction.
Mesothelioma and Asbestos
Mesothelioma is an asbestos-related cancer that can affect the lungs, abdomen, heart or testicles. Fibers of asbestos have been inhaled or ingested and lodged in the mesothelial layers of tissue surrounding those organs. Mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos can occur as pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma or testicular mesothelioma.
No matter where the mesothelioma occurs, it usually takes 20 to 50 years for cancer to develop after asbestos exposure.
Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer and Asbestos
Asbestos can also lead to “lung cancer”. It is different than mesothelioma cancer as it emerges from the lung tissue and not the mesothelial tissue. However, it is caused in the same way. Asbestos fibers lodge in the lung tissue, causing inflammation and cellular mutations. These DNA mutations ultimately lead to uncontrolled cell division in lung tissue cells.
Asbestos is responsible for about 4 percent of “regular” lung cancer cases. Even though it is different from mesothelioma, it also has a long latency period and may take 20 or more years after exposure to develop. People who have other risk factors like smoking are more likely to get mesothelioma lung cancer.
Within the non-small cell lung cancer diagnosis, there are different types:
- Squamous cell carcinoma – begins in the squamous cells of the larger bronchii
- Large cell carcinoma – begins in the large cells in the outer lung area, most common in smokers
- Adenocarcinoma – begins in the glandular cells of outer regions of the lungs, most common in non-smokers
Mesothelioma and non-small cell carcinoma may be treated differently from one another, though some treatments will be the same. A mesothelioma specialist will be able to differentiate and provide the most appropriate options for treatment.
Other Asbestos Cancers
Asbestos exposure has been linked to cancer of the larynx (voice box) and ovarian cancer. Some studies have suggested that asbestos exposure may also cause other cancers. These may include throat cancer affecting the pharynx, cancers of the gastrointestinal tract including the stomach, colon and rectum. Each type of cancer will be treated differently according to the tissue type.
Asbestos may also be linked to kidney, gall bladder, prostate and breast cancer and to leukemia and lymphoma though clear evidence has not been shown.
Asbestosis is a long-term illness caused by exposure to asbestos. It results in thickening and scarring or fibrosis in the lungs. This makes lung expansion difficult and leads to shortness of breath, chronic cough and general breathing difficulties. Asbestosis usually takes 10 to 20 years to develop and may get worse over time.
Symptoms for Asbestosis may include:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent cough
- Congestive cough (with mucus)
- Loss of appetite
- Lung sounds
Asbestosis may be mild to moderate in some people but in others can be severely disabling. There is no effective treatment for asbestosis as it is not a “cancer” but in some cases, certain types of surgery may reduce symptoms and medications may make breathing easier. Asbestosis also increases the chance of developing asbestos lung cancer, therefor, medical attention is essential.
Asbestos inhalation can cause pleural thickening due to scar tissue that builds on the pleural lining surrounding the lungs. This may result in systemic or body-wide inflammation which may appear to be similar to rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis or other auto-immune disease. Pleural thickening can also result in pleuritic or pleurisy, which is severe inflammation of the lungs.
In severe cases, pleurectomy may be considered while in other cases, medical management may be the best option.
Most disease caused by asbestos exposure takes 10, 20 or more years to develop. It is essential that anyone with symptoms of mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestos or other disease seek medical treatment. Mesothelioma is a very rare type of cancer, affecting only about 3,000 new patients per year, that is optimally treated by a mesothelioma specialist.
Thousands of people who were harmed by asbestos exposure have filed lawsuits against manufactures, employers and other organizations who promoted use of asbestos products, even after it had been determined to cause cancer and other disorders. Asbestos lawsuits have also been filed by loved ones of people who died due to their asbestos-related illness.
Though each case is unique and must be considered separately, thousands of victims have received compensation for injuries or wrongful death caused by asbestos. Because of the high number of injuries, illnesses and deaths, a multi-billion-dollar fund was established to help compensate these victims. Consultation with an asbestos attorney can help determine whether an asbestos lawsuit is appropriate.