Mesothelioma is an exceptionally rare and incurable form of cancer that develops from cells of the mesothelium, which is the protective lining covering many of the internal organs of the body. The most common place mesothelioma is found is in the pleura, or outer lining of the lungs and chest wall. Mesothelioma can also be found in the peritoneum (stomach lining), and the pericardium (heart cavity).
People who develop mesothelioma have often worked in settings such as refineries, paper mills, shipyards, commercial/residential construction, automotive shops, or in other industrial settings where the use of asbestos was prevalent. Washing the clothing of a family member who worked with asbestos can also increase your risk for developing mesothelioma.
Signs and symptoms of mesothelioma include shortness of breath due to a buildup of fluid between the chest wall and the lung, chest pain, and unexplained weight loss. The diagnosis may be suspected based on a thorough examination, a social history, initial chest X-rays, and/or a CT scan. The diagnosis will usually be confirmed with either a cytology/fluid examination and/or with a biopsy.
A thorascopy (inserting a tube with a camera into the chest) can be used to acquire biopsy material and allows for the draining of the pleural cavity to relieve pressure and prevent more fluid from accumulating and pressing on the lung. Unfortunately, despite treatment with chemotherapy, radiation, or sometimes surgery, mesothelioma generally carries a poor prognosis.
Exposure to asbestos is the most common risk factor for mesothelioma, and it is the only recognized cause by many health and environmental organizations around the world. In the United States, asbestos is considered the major cause of malignant mesothelioma and has been considered “indisputably” associated with the development of mesothelioma. A history of asbestos exposure exists in almost all cases of mesothelioma.
Asbestos has been mined and widely used commercially since the late 19th century. Since the early 1940s, millions of Americans have been exposed to asbestos dust. Even today, the official position of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. EPA is that protections and “permissible exposure limits” required by U.S. regulations, while adequate to prevent most asbestos-other organizations, including the World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society, have noted that there is no threshold level below which there is no risk of mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma has been known to develop even after only brief, low level, or indirect exposures to asbestos. The ultimate conclusion of these organizations is that there is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos as it relates to increased risk of mesothelioma.
Latency, the time from the first exposure to asbestos to the development of cancer, is longer in the case of mesothelioma. Generally, it is never less than 15 years, and it has been shown to develop even 40-50 years after exposure.
Exposure to asbestos fibers has been recognized as an occupational health hazard since the early 20th century. Many epidemiological studies have demonstrated a relationship between occupational (work) exposure to asbestos and the development of pleural plaques, pleural thickening, asbestosis, lung and throat cancers, gastrointestinal tumors, and mesothelioma of the pleura and peritoneum. For decades, asbestos was used extensively in many different types of products, including insulation, joint compounds, cements, brake linings, gaskets, roofing materials, and flooring/tile products.
Family members living with anyone who worked with asbestos can be at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma and possibly other asbestos related diseases. This is because asbestos dust can be brought into the home on the clothes of anyone who worked with or around asbestos-containing products.
Many building materials used in the construction of both public and domestic structures prior to the banning of asbestos may contain asbestos even today. Those performing renovation/construction work or home remodeling activities may have been exposed to asbestos dust. In some countries, the use of asbestos was not banned at the end of 1999. Related non-malignant diseases are not adequate to prevent or protect against mesothelioma.
Lindsey Cheek is the founding member and chief attorney at Cheek Law Firm. She got her J.D. from the South Texas College of Law and her B.B.A. from the University of Houston. Ms. Cheek passed the Bar admissions for the State of Louisiana, the State of Texas, the State of Pennsylvania, and the Northern District of Texas. She is a skilled and experienced lawyer who has recovered millions of dollars in settlements for her clients.