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December 28, 2017

By: Shawn Tallet


Chances are - as you read this - you’ve heard of asbestos, or maybe even have seen a television commercial talking about it. While “asbestos” and “mesothelioma” can serve as buzzwords in certain circles, in many cases, their true risks and hazards aren’t commonly well-known. Asbestos was commonly used in industry and construction, and its detriment to health was discovered by doctors in those with substantial exposure. Although the practice of asbestos utilization is all but dead in the United States, there still exists risks and dangers with exposure.

So, what is Asbestos?

            Plainly speaking, asbestos is a one-time wonder mineral that was used extensively during and after the Industrial Revolution. An organic mineral of the silicate family, the substance was chosen more often than not due to its desirable properties, primarily fire resistance and durability. Asbestos was also an affordable option to enhance the proprietary content of insulation, flooring, roofing, and electrical applications. At the height of the United States’ asbestos usage, the nation was utilizing over 800,000 tons annually. Common professions that dealt directly with the material were the construction industry, the US Navy, miners, shipyard workers, and mechanics.

            By the 1920s, doctors began to notice trends of malignancies within employees of these industries. The illness was characterized by chest tightness, shortness of breath, and fluid buildup in the lungs. As medicine progressed and more cases became prevalent, the health community discovered what is now known as mesothelioma. Although these cases continued to crop up in the circles of industry, it is important to note that asbestos was still used extensively until 1980.

The Risk of Mesothelioma

            Asbestos, when disturbed, becomes an incredibly volatile substance; which is where the danger lies. When disrupted from years of dormancy, the mineral easily fragments into a dust-based particulate matter. Once this asbestos-laden dust is inhaled, the particles remain lodged in the body. The inhalation of the particulate matter is directly linked to the onset of mesothelioma. Decades after exposure, the disease manifests in the lining of the organs - most notably the lungs, known as pleural mesothelioma. However, rarer forms of mesothelioma, known as peritoneal and pericardial, can manifest in the lining of the stomach and heart, respectively.

            Mesothelioma is generally diagnosed by a specialist after a biopsy is confirmed positive. Due to the commonality of the symptoms, the disease is known to be misdiagnosed - which can result in late-stage diagnosis down the road. The outlook for patients upon diagnosis is poor, with an average lifespan of 12-21 months. Treatment options consist of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and sometimes, surgical removal of cancerous tissue. Lately, some patients have seen success in immunotherapy regimens, especially with the drug Keytruda. While extensive research continues, there still remains no cure for mesothelioma.

So, Am I at Risk?

            Traditionally, mesothelioma existed generally within industry employees. However, more and more cases of mesothelioma are now being diagnosed in people outside of the construction and industrial sector. Notable cases include singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, who suspected his exposure occurred in the attic of the family carpet store. As it stands today, OSHA has determined that no level of asbestos exposure can be considered safe, and it continues to be regulated strictly. The EPA is currently reviewing the hazard asbestos poses, but also maintains a strict policy of compliance regarding the material. However, asbestos is still currently not prohibited in the United States.

Due to the widespread usage of asbestos throughout the majority of the 20th Century, many homes and buildings contain the substance. There is no surefire way to independently verify whether or not your home or project site is contaminated, so it is imperative that a professional be consulted. Furthermore, if you suspect your home or building contains asbestos, do NOT try and remove it yourself. The best practice is to remain vigilant and to educate oneself about the perils and pitfalls of asbestos, and through that process, keep it safe!