The relationship between mesothelioma and asbestos is very real. A type of cancer that changes the mesothelial cells in the lining of the lungs and other major organs, mesothelioma is almost exclusively associated with exposure to, and the inhalation of, asbestos fibers. This exposure most often occurs in the workplace, since the substance was widely used in various industries throughout most of the 20th century. However, an increasing number of cases of secondhand exposure to asbestos have also led to recent diagnoses of mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma develops when microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, becoming lodged in organs or cavities. This can cause inflammation and damage to cells. Over decades, the damaged cells divide, causing the membranes in certain locations to become abnormally thick. Fluid then builds up in the spaces between the membranous layers and tumors form, affecting lung function.
Asbestos is the name given to a class of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals that, until the 1970s and 1980s, had been used for commercial manufacturing purposes for more than 100 years. The fibers can be separated and are many times thinner than human hairs, with lengths of around five micrometers. This substance was used because it is lightweight, flexible, strong, non-conductive and resistant to extremely high temperatures. The fibers can also be woven into cloth, spun into yarn or thread and mixed with paint, cement, plastics, wallboard and other materials.
Asbestos-regulating measures have been put into place in recent decades, but these have come too late to help the many people who worked in a wide variety of industries. Mesothelioma has a long latency period, meaning that the time between exposure to asbestos and a diagnosis can be 50 years. That means thousands of people working during the 20th century are only now being diagnosed. Many more may not yet have been diagnosed.
Many people have been exposed to asbestos at their jobs, particularly those in construction, oil refineries, power plants, chemical plants and shipyards. Even those people who worked in metal works and the Navy were effected, as the tools and equipment they worked with regularly brought them in close contact with the substance, often without the proper protection.
Other people have developed mesothelioma after environmental exposure to asbestos. The September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center released 2,000 tons of asbestos into the air over New York City. That day, 62 percent of people caught in the cloud of ash reported respiratory problems. The rescue workers who remained at the site for weeks are at risk as well. Likewise, the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent demolition of old asbestos-containing homes in and around New Orleans put many rescue workers, homeowners and volunteers at risk for inhalation of asbestos.