Asbestos – a legal carcinogen – kills 265 Californians annually
■ By Rachel Lynch / Contributed
Asbestos is a carcinogen legal to use in the United States. This toxin is the only known cause of mesothelioma – a rare form of cancer. Every year 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with this disease.
The state of California has the highest rate of mesothelioma in the entire country – 2,647 Californians died of mesothelioma from 2001 to 2010 – about 265 a year. More specifically, Riverside County has the fourth highest rate of asbestos-related deaths in the entire state. From 1999 to 2013 there were 1,019 asbestos-related deaths in Riverside County, which averages out to about 68 asbestos-related deaths each year.
The cancer forms when asbestos fibers are inhaled and embedded in the lining of the lungs, heart and abdomen. The most common form of the disease is pleural mesothelioma, which occurs in the lining of the lungs and accounts for 80 to 90 percent of all mesothelioma cases.
The cancer is often not diagnosed until the later stages of the disease – leading to a poor prognosis. On average, patients live between 12 to 21 months after diagnosis. An accurate diagnosis is so difficult because the symptoms of mesothelioma are often mistaken for more common illnesses. Pleural mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed as the flu or pneumonia. The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma are often related to lung function – leading to difficulty breathing and chest pain.
A diagnosis is often complicated because people do not realize they’ve been exposed to asbestos. The toxin can be found in many buildings built prior to the 1980s. While the mineral is now strictly regulated in the United States, asbestos was commonly used in building materials and can be found in insulation and floor and ceiling tiles. The mineral was also used in shipbuilding and repair, exposing many veterans to the substance. New regulations do not require old asbestos materials to be removed from buildings, so asbestos exposure continues when the material is disturbed.
There are three distinct waves of asbestos exposure – the first impacted laborers who worked with asbestos. The second wave occurred as asbestos dust was brought home on laborers’ clothing, which exposed their families to mesothelioma. The third and current wave of asbestos exposure is the result of the DIY craze. With the intention of saving money and designing a space true to their individual style, homeowners and house flippers can unknowingly expose themselves and their families to asbestos. Many experts predict a spike in mesothelioma diagnoses by 2020.
Additionally mesothelioma symptoms have a long latency period – symptoms typically do not manifest until 20 to 40 years after asbestos exposure. Due to the latency period, the average age of those diagnosed with mesothelioma is high – between 72 and 75 years old.
A National Cancer Institute study found that 29.3 percent of pleural mesothelioma patients and 21.5 percent of other mesothelioma patients do not receive cancer therapy. The best way to beat the disease is to catch it early and seek treatment. If you believe you may have been exposed to asbestos, consult with a medical professional. The only sure fire way to prevent mesothelioma is to achieve a complete ban of asbestos in the United States.
Rachel Lynch is the press and media coordinator for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, specializing in asbestos use.