Asbestos: The Invisible Killer

Asbestos: The Invisible Killer
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Asbestos kills.

The cancers it causes—lung, mesothelioma, and ovarian—progress slowly and with few visible symptoms, but the link between asbestos and potentially terminal cancers has been known since 1993. Inexplicably, asbestos is still legal to use and to import.

Asbestos and other of silicate-related fibers (both “curly” and straight) have been labelled as Group 1 carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the National Toxicology Program, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for many years. Links have been proven to mesothelioma, lung cancer, and ovarian cancer from both inhalation and ingestion of the fibers. It develops slowly, often from workplace exposures so a mesothelioma diagnosis is more likely to affect older people who worked in such occupations as construction, mining, ship-building or firefighting occupation.

Heather St. James never worked in such a high-risk setting, so she and her husband Cameron were shocked when she was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2005, right after their first child was born. She was 35 years old and was told that without treatment, “you don’t have long.”
Heather’s exposure to asbestos happened as a result of her father’s work in the construction industry in South Dakota and used to come home with asbestos dust covering his jacket. Each evening, Heather would put on her dad’s work jacket to go out to feed her rabbits. Little did she know that every evening, she was inhaling asbestos fibers each time she moved. The disease didn’t show any symptom until she was 35 years old,.

Only 45% of mesothelioma patients under the age of 45 survive for more than a year after diagnosis; for patients who are older at diagnosis, the odds drop sharply. Survival rates haven’t improved significantly over time except for peritoneal mesothelioma, one variety of the disease.

Generally it takes years for mesothelioma to develop in the smooth tissue linings of the chest and abdomen. There are few warning signs, so according to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Association, by the time it is detected, the disease has often progressed to an advanced and potentially terminal stage. Only 10-20% of patients are even eligible for surgery, and most are offered palliative care.

Few cancer centers specialize in treating mesothelioma, but Heather and Cam had the resources and insurance to find and receive expert treatment. The treatment involved brutal surgery and multiple rounds of chemotherapy. She’s now classified as NED (no evidence of disease), but will never be considered “cured.” She still deals with neuropathy, muscle weakness, visual migraines, and other pain. Despite insurance, they faced $1 million in accumulated medical debt.

55 other countries have banned the use of asbestos, but it’s still legal in China, Russia, Canada, India, and the United States. In fact, efforts to ban asbestos in the United States were blocked by industry lobbying and a court case in 1991. In fact, the Environmental Working Group says that “more than 8.2 million pounds of raw asbestos and hundreds of pounds of asbestos waste and products containing asbestos arrived in U.S. ports between 2006 and 2015. More arrived from Canada and Mexico. . . . . Asbestos is still legal, still lethal, and still everywhere.”

Homes built before 1980 may have asbestos in their floor tiles, insulation, ceilings, roof shingles, siding and other areas of the home, and it is still present in such consumer products as hair dryers, baby powder, home appliances that generate heat, adhesives, concrete pipes (think Flint, Michigan), spackling compound, decorative plaster, barbecue mitts, and so on. Even worse, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Action Fund, asbestos is also present in many brands of kids’ crayons and toy CSI crime kits. (A reminder: To take fingerprints using CSI techniques, you sprinkle a chemical dust on an area and then blow it off into the air, where it may be inhaled by the child using the kit.)

September 26 was designated by the U.S. House of Representatives as an annual Mesothelioma Awareness Day in 2010. Designating such a day does acknowledge the seriousness of the disease, so thanks to our Congress for doing so. Unfortunately that action is necessary, but not sufficient: This country needs a total ban on the use and importation of asbestos and laws that permit younger patients to sue those who are making and marketing toxic products. It’s up to the Congress to make those things happen.

Heather and Cam are activists. Cam explained, “We didn’t want to let the cancer destroy our lives. We’re going to fight back. . . . This shouldn’t happen to anyone else. Someday a politician will act on this issue.”

To follow up on her story, and perhaps to get motivated to make Cam’s “someday” a reality, readers might want to visit Heather’s mesothelioma blog

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