Asbestos is a mineral that is mined out of the ground. It is related to sand, but rather than being particulate it is fibrous. In fact, asbestos fibers can be woven into cloth. It is fireproof, heat and acid resistant, and can be used to insulate or strengthen other materials. Despite the well financed “doubt” science funded by the asbestos industry, it is generally agreed in the scientific and medical communities that all forms of asbestos can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma in particular can be caused by very low infrequent exposures.
The ancient Greeks and Romans noticed that the slaves who worked with asbestos died from horrible lung diseases. However the lessons did not stick. The next mention of the problems caused by asbestos came from British factory inspectors in the late 19th Century, calling the asbestos dust “evil”. By 1917, even though there was not yet a term for the sometimes fatal lung scarring now known as asbestosis, North American insurance companies were already refusing to insure asbestos workers. By 1930 a large well conducted asbestos study was published and distributed throughout the world. The conclusions of this widely available scientific article were: 1) that asbestos could cause fatal lung conditions; 2) that there were approaches that could be taken immediately to greatly reduce the danger; and 3) part of the protection program would be to ensue that the potentially exposed individuals were given a “sane appreciation” of the risk. However the first, albeit wholly inadequate, warnings did not appear for well over 30 years. In fact, one of the main reasons for the formation of OSHA in 1970 was the complete failure of industry to regulate itself and properly warn exposed people of the dangers of asbestos.
In addition to the scarring condition known as asbestosis, both lung cancer and mesothelioma are caused by asbestos. In fact, asbestos is the only generally accepted cause of mesothelioma in North America. Asbestos companies will often try to argue that many cases of mesothelioma are of unknown cause simply because there was no mention of asbestos exposure in the medical records. But the fact of the matter is that almost everyone in the United states has millions of asbestos fibers in their lungs and the asbestos companies find it quite impossible to find a single case of mesothelioma about whom even their own highly paid experts would not admit were indeed exposed to “background” levels of millions of asbestos fibers. Mesothelioma is considered to a signature disease for asbestos exposure. In fact, many doctors will immediately ask their patients about previous asbestos exposure if the initial indications are that mesothelioma may be a possibility.
Mesothelioma is not the same as true lung cancer. Lung cancer is in the main part of the lung, which doctors call the parenchyma. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the linings surrounding the lung, heart, abdominal cavity and some other areas. Although both are caused by asbestos, the treatments can vary dramatically for each, so a correct diagnosis is a critical aspect of the treatment process. Although the prognosis for mesothelioma and much lung cancer is poor, treatments have improved dramatically. Progress continues to be made at a rapid pace. Improvements have also been made in the control of pain and discomfort, and this aspect should also be considered a vital aspect of treatment.