Mesothelioma and the prolonged effects of asbestos exposure

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Considering the recent trial concerning W.R. Grace & Company, the federal government and the citizens of the asbestos-contaminated town of Libby, Montana, the topic of asbestos-related disease has been receiving national attention in the media.

Malignant mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure. Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year in the United States and those figures are predicted to climb over the next decade.

Asbestos exposure occurs when the fibers that make up the mineral are either inhaled or ingested into the body. This usually happens after asbestos-containing materials are damaged or otherwise disturbed, resulting in the release of asbestos fibers into the surrounding environment.

Throughout the 20th century, some of the more common locations for asbestos exposure (predominantly for men) have included industries such as construction, automotive, shipyards, power plants, chemical plants, railroad, manufacturing and mining.

Additionally, other indirect cases of asbestos exposure, referred to as secondary exposure, have affected the lives of women and children. Scores of men who worked with asbestos could unwittingly bring home asbestos fibers on their skin, hair and clothes. This led to exposing their wives, children and friends to the toxic material.

Diagnosis of mesothelioma can be challenging, as many of the symptoms patients often experience will bear a resemblance to those of minor and more common health conditions, such as pneumonia. Further complicating the diagnosis process, the severe latency period associated with mesothelioma (ranging from 20 to 50 years) can allow the disease to progress to later stages of development by the time symptoms start to arise.

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Consumer Product Safety Commission have implemented stringent regulations on asbestos-containing materials, even though not all asbestos products are banned. According to the EPA, products that contain 1 percent or more asbestos fiber are considered to be asbestos-containing.

Those who suspect asbestos could be present in their home or workplace should speak with an asbestos consultant for advice. Roughly 80 percent of homes constructed before 1980 are likely to contain asbestos materials. If intact and showing no sign of damage or decay, asbestos-containing materials generally do not pose a health threat as long as they are not disturbed and are routinely checked for potential damage.

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