The primary cause of mesothelioma is asbestos. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally every year, 107,000 people die of asbestos related diseases, namely mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis (the scarring of the lungs with excess fibrous tissue)1. The more asbestos fibers you inhale, the higher the risk of developing cancer. While asbestos was scientifically proven to cause asbestosis in the 1930s and lung cancer a decade later, the clear link between airborne asbestos and mesothelioma was made in 1960, by the scientist, J.C. Wagner2.
How does asbestos cause mesothelioma?
Asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals. Microscopic asbestos fibers are 1,200 times thinner than a strand of human hair. They can be released into the air when disrupted, at which time they may be easily inhaled. When inhaled, asbestos enters your air passages and the lungs as a foreign substance. Your body naturally responds by trying to get rid of it, either through coughing up the mucus that traps it or by carrying it away with fluids. Unfortunately, not all may be eliminated from the body. Anything that remains gets trapped in your body and firmly embedded in the tissues, inflaming the lungs or other parts of the body that have been exposed, particularly the abdomen, heart and, in rare cases, the testicles. Long term inflammation leads to the development of tumors, cancer and mesothelioma, but how this exactly occurs is still unknown. Scientists believe that it may be due to the mutation of the cells, damage by free radicals, and/or a boost in the production of oncoproteins to dangerous levels (which makes abnormal growth of tissue).
You might not know you have it until it’s too late
You may not know you have mesothelioma until several years after exposure. Research has found that the majority of sufferers are not diagnosed as having mesothelioma until 30 years or more after the initial exposure. Because the microscopic asbestos fibers are invisible and odorless, it can also be difficult to know when you are being exposed (often the case of secondhand asbestos exposure). That’s why it is important that you avoid touching or disturbing any asbestos you may find.
There are two types of asbestos: amphibole and chrysotile. While both increase your risk of developing cancer, it is believed that there is a higher risk of developing mesothelioma when exposed to amphibole asbestos. This is because the fibers of the amphibole variety are rigid and needle-like, making them more “sticky”.
A report presented to the House of Commons in Canada states that the number of asbestos-related fatalities around the world, to date, may be over 5 million3.
1. Thirteenth Session of the Joint ILO/WHO Committee on Occupational Health
2. Diffuse Pleural Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure in the North Western Cape Province
3. La Dou J. An international review of occupational and environmental asbestos issues: funding of international agencies. Proceedings of the Chrysotile Debate Canadian Asbestos Conference: A Global Problem; House of Commons, Ottawa. 2003.