The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced wide-reaching changes that have impacted individuals personally and professionally. One lasting effect is social distancing. With more time spent inside, indoor air quality is another concern that can prompt chronic respiratory conditions. While mold, radon, carbon monoxide, and similar toxic fumes are recognized as common, and occasionally urgent sources of poor indoor air quality, another hazard that has been a recurrent health risk is asbestos.
This known carcinogen can be found in building materials or products utilizing asbestos fibers for their durability and heat-resistance. As a result, asbestos has been exposed to home renovators, builders, construction workers, firefighters, and anyone disturbing these fibers, leading to inhalation.
What is Mesothelioma? How is it different from lung cancer?
Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer with 80-90% of all cases diagnosed as pleural mesothelioma. Pleural refers to the lung region, but this disease can also target the lining of the heart or abdomen. Although mesothelioma is associated with lung cancer and can be acknowledged as a cancer of the lungs, it is different from lung cancer.
There are a variety of risk factors associated with lung cancer including cigarette smoking, radon, and air pollution. However, asbestos alone causes mesothelioma. Another difference is that lung cancer has two types: small cell and non-small cell, while mesothelioma has four types depending on where the tumor is located. Mesothelioma happens when asbestos fibers get stuck to the linings of organs, and this abnormality causes cells to develop cancerous tumors.
In the USA, an estimated 3,000 new cases and 2,500 mesothelioma deaths occur every year. The survival rate for lung cancer differs greatly depending on the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis, age of the patient, and the personal details of a patient’s family and health history. There is an average of 5 years for lung cancer survival rate. For mesothelioma, patients can generally expect a 12-21 month life expectancy once diagnosed, indicating the severity of this cancer. Both the latency period and the patient’s age contribute to an overall ineffective prognosis.
How does this happen? Is it a problem in buildings?
Asbestos has a long history in building and related industries. Globally, there are 125 million people exposed to asbestos each year. This is a significant problem, as there has yet to be an official safe level of asbestos in products and materials. About 1% of asbestos is permitted for manufacturing use in the U.S. Many European countries have completely banned asbestos due to its dangers if swallowed or inhaled. The United Kingdom enacted a full asbestos ban in 1999, and Australia stopped asbestos importing, manufacturing, reuse, sale, and storage in 2003.
Since asbestos was a popular additive for centuries prior to worldwide bans, if an asbestos-containing material (ACM) has any breakage, renovation, repair, or deterioration it can leave individuals vulnerable to exposure. With this in mind, asbestos is non-threatening if it is contained.
Are some occupations more at risk?
Yes, construction and factory workers are at a higher risk. Older homes can have flooring, roofing, cement, or insulation that may be an ACM. Along with notable indoor air pollutants like lead and radon, any damaged asbestos is a component of compromised air quality.
Roughly 1.3 million construction workers are exposed to asbestos while working every year. Mechanical, electrical, military, and engineering equipment may also have trace amounts of asbestos. Frequent and prolonged contact with loose fibers could increase the possibility of developing mesothelioma or asbestos-related diseases.
What responsibility do building owners/landlords/managers have in removing asbestos
Depending on the country, asbestos restrictions are varied. In the U.S., there are a number of legislative acts and rulings to prevent exposure. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and Center for Disease and Control (CDC) all have set guidelines and have conducted research to disclose the critical health effects of this toxin.
Handling asbestos without a licensed professional can cause respiratory harm or disease. Homeowners should hire an abatement specialist to test an area and remove asbestos. Companies or industries that expose workers to asbestos can be held accountable. The litigation process for mesothelioma cases is indispensable for patients who unwillingly or unknowingly were exposed and who should receive financial compensation for medical treatment and the burdens of an unexpected diagnosis.
What advice can you offer our readers?
My job is to inform others about the ongoing risks of asbestos exposure and to raise awareness for mesothelioma patients. Most people assume that mesothelioma is an “old man’s disease,” and that’s just not the case as it has affected women, teachers, firefighters, veterans, and homeowners.
Paying attention to asbestos regulations, guidelines, and being as safe as possible to avoid exposure is one of the ways to practice prevention. Mesothelioma has fewer cases every year than lung cancer, but the rates of survival are often lower. February 28th is Rare Disease Day and highlights this type of cancer which, similar to COVID-19, attacks the respiratory system and if mesothelioma patients contract COVID-19, they experience greater symptoms. Indoor air quality and occupational health and safety are important matters that can be controlled. At this time, these areas of focus can produce smarter decisions for workers everywhere.
For more content on the impacts of poor indoor air quality, click here.
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