Some people jokingly say that “ignorance is bliss.” There can be no doubt, however, that ignorance can also be dangerous. There is no better example of this than the common misconceptions concerning the link between asbestos exposure and the development of mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is almost always caused by asbestos exposure. It is not caused by smoking cigarettes. It is a deadly cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs or around the abdomen, usually several decades after asbestos exposure. Because of the rarity and slow development of mesothelioma, three common misconceptions about the disease have emerged:
“I’ve never worked with asbestos directly, so I’m not at risk for mesothelioma.”
FACT: Indirect contact with asbestos is just as dangerous as working hands-on with the material. Even if you have never worked with asbestos directly, you may be at risk of developing mesothelioma if you:
Worked in an occupation in which asbestos was used
Worked in the same facility where other people handled asbestos or asbestos products
Lived with someone who worked in an occupation in which asbestos was used
Lived near a place where asbestos was used or mined.
Historically, there are numerous occupations linked to a higher likelihood of developing mesothelioma due to asbestos use at the job site. Some of those occupations include:
Power plant workers
Sheet metal workers
Plumbers and pipefitters
Heating, ventilating, and air conditioning workers
Shipyard workers and navy sailors
Textile mill workers
Even if you did not work in one of these occupations, you may still be at risk of developing mesothelioma if you worked in a location where asbestos or asbestos containing products were used, either by you or people around you. As Dr. Irving Selikoff, one of the foremost researchers of the 20th Century into the hazards of asbestos exposure, once wrote: “the floating fibers do not respect job classifications.”
Asbestos fibers are extremely small, can travel with wind currents, and are capable of being transported home on a worker’s clothing. There has been an alarming upswing in the number of mesothelioma cases that are attributable to this secondhand exposure. Spouses and children of asbestos workers may have inhaled asbestos fibers that were brought home by a family member who had direct, daily contact with asbestos-containing materials. The medical literature is filled with reports of mesothelioma arising due to household exposure to asbestos brought home from their job by a family member.
In areas where any of the minerals collectively known as asbestos are mined, the air up to a mile or more away can be poisoned. For example, vermiculite is a mineral substance that is frequently mined and used as an insulator. W.R. Grace & Company mined asbestos-tainted vermiculite near Libby, Montana to make commercial and residential insulation until 1990. Now, the area is one of the largest asbestos contaminated sites in our nation’s history. An estimated 400 people have died, and 1,750 were sickened, by the asbestos dust released from the vermiculite mine.
In addition to living near a mine where asbestos was taken out of the ground, living near a factory or shipyard where large amounts of asbestos were used historically substantially raises the risk of developing mesothelioma. Some of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world are found in cities and towns near to shipyards where large amounts of asbestos were used.
“I only worked around asbestos for a few months, so I’m not at risk for mesothelioma.”
FACT: Many people believe that you have to work around asbestos for many years to be at risk of developing mesothelioma. Because of the long period of time between initial asbestos exposure and the development of mesothelioma symptoms (the latency period), many people incorrectly believe that it takes years of occupational exposure to cause the cancer. However, medical studies have proven that even asbestos exposure during a relatively short span of time can cause the deadly disease. The published medical literature is filled with studies of mesothelioma cases developing after only a few days to a few weeks of asbestos exposure.
As another example, first responders and rescue workers who rushed to Ground Zero following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were exposed to significant amounts of asbestos fibers while assisting in the rescue, recovery and cleanup. First responder Deborah Reeve, 41, died from mesothelioma just a few years after approximately eight months of continuous and direct asbestos exposure. Robert Oswain, another 9/11 first responder, died of mesothelioma in May 2010; his only known exposure to asbestos took place in the 9/11 aftermath.
“Mesothelioma only develops in elderly men.”
FACT: This misconception may result from the fact that so many mesothelioma sufferers are diagnosed when they are at or nearing retirement age. This is due to the long period of time between initial asbestos exposure and the onset of mesothelioma symptoms.
However, as already discussed, women and young adults are being diagnosed with mesothelioma at an alarming rate due, in part, to secondhand exposure or exposure to asbestos in schools. There are numerous cases in the medical literature of mesothelioma developing in people in their twenties as a result of asbestos exposure at school or from being around a parent who worked with asbestos and brought it home on his clothes. The mesothelioma diagnosis of Kevin Morrison, a 21-year-old from Norwood, Mass., is evidence that asbestos exposure affects people of all ages. In February 2011, doctors diagnosed the 21-year-old with peritoneal mesothelioma, which is a rare form of the cancer that affects the lining of the abdomen.
There is an old saying that, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you”, but I never really believed that. Rather, I think Mark Twain got it right when he said “If you think knowledge is dangerous, try ignorance.”