Mesothelioma: What’s it all about and Why Should You Care?

September is National Mesothelioma Month and September 26th is Mesothelioma Awareness Day. Mesothelioma is a rare but very aggressive form of cancer primarily caused by exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is a fibrous material used in fireproofing, insulation and for other industrial and commercial purposes. Because of its superior insulating and bonding ability, asbestos was used extensively in the United States from the 1930’s through the late-1970’s in industry, construction, shipbuilding, and consumer products. Asbestos exists in older construction in the United States including our nation’s schools, homes, and workplaces, and is used in many common products like insulation, roofing and vehicle brakes.

The EPA estimates that most of our nation’s schools contain asbestos and that it exists in 733,000 public and commercial buildings, and further estimates that more than 20 million American workers suffered significant asbestos exposure through the course of their work life, and continue to be at risk for developing mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a particularly horrible and painful disease, almost always resulting in death. People become ill after inhaling asbestos fibers and dust, which in turn irritate lung tissue. Large tumors then develop around the lining of the heart, within the lungs or abdominal wall; the tumors grow and harden, and cause intense pain and eventual suffocation. Survival rates average only 12 months after diagnosis.

“Tiny fibers are inhaled into the lining of the lungs and cause the lining of the cells to mutate. If another fiber then infiltrates the mutated cells, a second mutation occurs. Another mutation can develop into a deadly tumor. The process typically takes decades before the exposure turns deadly. Manufacturers have known of these risk for decades, but cared more about corporate profit than public safety,” explains Ken Sales of the Bubalo Law PLC.

People can develop mesothelioma anywhere from 10 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. Exposure may be incidental yet mesothelioma can still develop. The air in many industrial plants is often filled with millions of asbestos fibers, even after precautions have been taken to remove the known asbestos hazards. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that between 1999 and 2005, more than 18,000 people died from mesothelioma, and 3000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

Some people have a higher risk of developing the dreaded disease depending upon their occupation. Those who work in construction, shipbuilding, and the railroad and automotive industries have greater occupational exposure and, therefore, greater risk of developing mesothelioma. Military and civilian employees who work in Naval shipyards also have a higher incidence of mesothelioma. In fact, one-third of those diagnosed with mesothelioma are military or civilian Naval employees.

And sadly, even family members of individuals who have a high exposure rate have an increased risk of developing mesothelioma because they also breathe in asbestos dust and fibers contained on the clothes and in their hair and skin of their family member who was exposed.

Doctors also expect an increase in the number of mesothelioma diagnoses due to recent man-made and natural disasters that increase the number of people exposed. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were filled with asbestos-containing materials so those who survived the 9/11 bombings, and first responders, are at increased risk for developing mesothelioma. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita also exposed victims, emergency personnel, and those involved in cleanup to asbestos and asbestos-containing materials.

Because of its extensive use, we probably all have been exposed to asbestos during our lifetimes, and generations to come will continue to be exposed because of its prevalence in our buildings and homes. Mesothelioma is a national health crisis that must be addressed immediately with increased research dollars and increased public awareness. Funding for mesothelioma research and treatment is woefully insufficient, and significantly less than research funding for other forms of cancer.

If you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, you likely will qualify for Social Security Disability benefits on the basis of your diagnosis alone. Those diagnosed with either pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma will also likely qualify for a Compassionate Allowance and can avoid the extended hoop jumping that normally occurs when one applies for SSD.

Despite the deadly effects of asbestos exposure, asbestos is not banned in the United States. Both Houses of Congress have attempted to pass legislation to ban or limit asbestos use without success, although it is banned in more than 40 industrialized nations.

We’ve been handling mesothelioma exposure cases for decades, and we’re here to help those who are suffering from this dreadful disease. We also encourage you to contact your state and federal representatives to voice your support for banning asbestos use in the United States.

For additional information on mesothelioma, see www.curemeso.org.