Asbestos is a long, thin, fibrous mineral made of up of microscopic crystals. There are six different types that are split up into two different groups: serpentine or amphibole. Serpentine asbestos is classified by its layered structure and curly fibers. One particular type of serpentine asbestos – chrysotile – is most commonly found in building materials throughout the United States. Amphibole asbestos is characterized by its long, chain-like structure. The fibers are sharp and straight, making them very easy to inhale.
Asbestos has been used for at least 4,000 years – archeologists have found it in ancient clay pots, presumably to protect the dishes when being used in cooking fires. However, it was not mined at a large scale until the industrial revolution in the 19th century. At that point, manufacturers and builders started to use the product, taking advantage of beneficial properties, including its strength, sound absorbance, and particularly its resistance to fire, heat, and electricity. Also, it’s a fairly abundant mineral, making it pretty cheap to mine and affordable to produce.
The “miracle material” has been used for a variety of different purposes throughout history, particularly related to construction and building. Electrical and building insulation often contained asbestos, and it wasn’t uncommon to find it in other products like cement, adhesives, siding, roofing, and flooring materials. It’s even been woven into fabrics, such as things like ironing board covers and fire blankets.
Even people in early civilizations realized that asbestos could cause pulmonary problems. Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD) wrote about how slaves that mined asbestos often suffered from lung problems and died at younger ages. Despite these health issues, civilizations continued using the material. As time went on, more and more uses for asbestos came about.
With time the trend has continued. Those exposed to asbestos have experienced health complications, and many people have died from these problems. The three prominent asbestos diseases include mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. Of these three, mesothelioma is the rarest and most aggressive.
In the United States, about 2,500 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year, and about 3,000 will die from the disease on an annual basis. The average diagnosis age is about 74, with 90% of all diagnoses being in people age 55 and older. Part of the reason for this is that mesothelioma has an extremely long latency period of anywhere between 10 and 50 years. Sadly, the cancer also often goes undiagnosed for long periods of time, as the symptoms of mesothelioma are easily mistaken for more common medical conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD – also called emphysema). These symptoms include difficulty breathing, hoarseness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and weight loss.
The long latency period combined with delayed diagnosis (and sometimes misdiagnosis) typically result in a diagnosis of mesothelioma in the later stages of the disease. Prognosis for Stage 4 mesothelioma is very grim, with most patients being given only about twelve months to live. Of course, this life expectancy depends on a variety of different factors, including the individual’s age, health, what type of mesothelioma they have, and even the cell type involved.
Upon diagnosis, the most common treatments for mesothelioma include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Usually a combination of these three treatments is used in what is known as multimodal therapy. However, at Stage 4, mesothelioma cannot successfully be treated in most cases, and palliative care comes is used to relieve symptoms, rather than to try to cure the disease. Palliative care focuses on reducing pain and discomfort and improving quality of life.
The only true way to cure mesothelioma is by banning asbestos. In 2016, President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act of the 21st Century, which has brought us a step closer to potentially banning this dangerous substance. Essentially, the new law gives the EPA new authority to review dangerous chemicals, and ban them if necessary. The EPA had tried to do this with asbestos way back in 1989, but the agency’s rules were deemed to be outside of its regulatory authority. The new laws give the EPA that very authority they had lacked before.
Since the law was passed, the EPA has already been holding meetings with various stakeholders about which chemical substances to review first. A strong coalition of people and groups looking to ban asbestos have provided comments to the EPA about the dangers that asbestos poses, and the health risks of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. It may still take years before it is ultimately banned in the U.S., but we are well on our way. Hopefully, one day it will be banned for good, and then this deadly, but preventable, disease will no longer be a danger to any of us.