Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is specifically caused by asbestos exposure. The cancer affects the lining surrounding various organs and cavities within the body called the mesothelium. Asbestos fibers, which are nearly invisible, sharp, and easily inhaled, become embedded in this soft tissue. The body is unable to break down or expel the fibers, resulting in damage and scarring to this protective lining that surrounds the organs.
Approximately 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year and even though it is a rare cancer, mesothelioma is aggressive, and with no known cure, the average life expectancy once one is diagnosed is less than one year.
Once the dangers of asbestos became well- known throughout the world, asbestos use declined rapidly. Today, in many countries asbestos is illegal or it is heavily regulated like in the United States. Scientists and researchers were hopeful that asbestos-related illnesses would also decline, but despite the decrease in use and regulatory actions by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that there is in fact an increase in mortality and morbidity of patients diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Between 1999 and 2015, there were a total of 45,221 deaths caused by mesothelioma in the United States. In 1999, 2,479 people died from mesothelioma and in 2015 there was an increase with 2,597 succumbing to the cancer. An interesting fact to note is the age group in which people are diagnosed. Since there is a long latency period between asbestos exposure and illness (10 to 40 years), typically the elderly are the most affected. Of the 45,221 recorded deaths attributed to mesothelioma between 1999 and 2015, 16,914 of those deaths were patients between 75-84 years old. Research suggests that the increase in the elderly with a mesothelioma diagnosis makes sense; it is likely from exposure from years ago. The amount of cases for individuals between 35 to 64 years old have decreased slightly over time, but the fact that there are individuals under the age of 55 still being diagnosed suggests that asbestos exposure is ongoing.
The CDC also suspects a number of factors that contribute to asbestos exposure in today’s youth. Its heavy use throughout the 20th century in homes, school buildings, and other buildings means that it is prevalent in the environment, especially if the structure was built before 1980. Building maintenance, demolition, and remediation of existing asbestos in structures, along with natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, and fires can all cause asbestos exposure. While occupational asbestos exposure may be on the decline, the fact remains that many can still be exposed to asbestos in their own homes.
Mazurek JM, Syamlal G, Wood JM, Hendricks SA, Weston A, “Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality — United States, 1999–2015,” MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep (March 2, 2017). [Link]