Who Is At Risk?
Mesothelioma is a lung disease associated with long-term exposure to asbestos, usually from working with the material or coming on contact with asbestos-contaminated materials over a long period of time.
Mesothelioma is a fatal cancer of the mesothelium, which is the membrane lining that protects vital organs such as the lungs, heart, and abdomen. The mesothelium is akin to a fluid-filled sac that supports the heart and lungs and allows for their expansion and contraction.
Mesothelioma develops over a period of 20-40 years after exposure to large amounts of asbestos and inhaling the particles. Nearly all of the mesothelioma patients are older individuals, due to the very slow progression of this lung disease.
At this time, asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma.
Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases
Asbestos-related lung diseases have several stages of severity. Not everyone exposed to asbestos will suffer from these respiratory diseases and conditions. However, asbestos must always be considered hazardous.
According to Safe Work Australia, the approximate time progressions of asbestos-related diseases to develop after exposure are as follows:
• Benign pleural disease – 7 years
- Evidence of asbestos exposure can only be identified on chest X-rays
- No symptoms are present
- Physicians recommend patients to stop smoking and receive regular health evaluations
• Asbestosis – 10+ years
- Dry and persistent cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Finger deformities
• Lung cancer – 20+ years
- Similar symptoms as asbestosis
- Smokers are at greater risk for the disease
• Mesothelioma – 20-40 years
- Early diagnosis is difficult
- Short-survival time between diagnosis and death. Usually about 6-18 months
Sources: Mayo Clinic and Safe Work Australia
There are three primary forms of mesothelioma, which are listed by commonality and location:
- Pleural (lungs) – 94% of cases in Australia since 1982
- Peritoneal (abdomen)
- Pericardial (heart)
- Reproductive organs – a very rare form of the disease
Source: Safe Work Australia
There are many symptoms that mesothelioma patients may experience. Some of these symptoms may occur with other diseases and illnesses. Only health and medical professionals can diagnosis mesothelioma and other diseases and illnesses.
- Lower than normal red blood cell count
- Reduced blood iron levels
- Possible loss of bone marrow
• Blood Clotting Disorder
- Excessive bleeding
- Wounds do not stop bleeding
• Bowel Obstruction
- Excessive fluid causes abdomen pain
- Symptom of peritoneal mesothelioma
• Chest Pain
- Growing tumor(s) place strain on the heart and lungs
- Symptom of pleural mesothelioma and pericardial mesothelioma
- Difficulty swallowing
- Symptom of pleural mesothelioma
• Fluid Effusion
- Fluid buildup around the heart or lungs
- Coughing up blood
- Originates in the lungs, bronchi, or trachea of mesothelioma patients
- Side effect of chemotherapy treatment, usually not due to mesothelioma
- Peritoneal mesothelioma patients may also experience nausea as a result of increasing abdominal pressure.
• Peritoneal Effusion
- Fluid buildup in the peritoneum as the tumor continues to grow.
- Abdominal organs can be affected and may not function properly
• Pleural Effusion
- Fluid buildup in the pleura, lining between the lungs and chest cavity.
- Symptom of pleural mesothelioma
• Weight Loss
- Side effect from cancer treatments or difficulty swallowing or nausea.
Source: Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance
Asbestos in Australia
Asbestos was mined in Australia for over one hundred years. By 1983, all extraction operations ceased. Despite the cessation of mining operations, the asbestos legacy is carried all over the continent. Asbestos was used for many applications and is still present in many homes and businesses.
There are six known types of asbestos minerals with different physical properties. Depending on the application, the mineral was woven into fabric to produce fire-proof textiles or compressed into building materials and insulation. Asbestos was inexpensive and effective. It was used everywhere and for countless applications and products.
This highly versatile material, however, comes with a very high health risk.
The problem with asbestos is when the building material, insulation, or other material begins to flake into pieces. The very small and very sharp particles become airborne, inhaled, and embedded in lung tissue.
Some of the shards may enter the alveoli, which are small air sacs in the lungs. The inhaled oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide exchange places in the alveoli – oxygen in, carbon dioxide out.
If the alveoli become blocked or damaged by the asbestos particles, the oxygen and carbon dioxide gas exchange cannot occur properly or at all. As a result, breathing difficulties will occur.
The asbestos particles irritate the lungs and can cause scar tissue to form. As more scar tissue is formed, the lungs become fibrous and loose elasticity, which means they become hard and tight. The lungs cannot fully expand and contract, which will cause breathing difficulties
The irony of asbestos is that the chemical and physical properties of the mineral that allow it be an extremely protective material, also cause it to be an extremely dangerous health risk.
Many people developed asbestosis, a lung disease precursor to mesothelioma, resulting from inhaling asbestos particles. Asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma are also caused by inhaling asbestos particles. Not all asbestosis patients will develop mesothelioma.
Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma occurrences in the world, though it should be noted that mesothelioma is a relatively rare form of cancer. In 2006, mesothelioma accounted for 0.6% of the cancer diagnoses in Australia.
Mesothelioma usually occurs in people who have been exposed to large volumes of asbestos over a long time. The at-risk occupations include, but are not limited to:
- Boiler workers
- Freight movers
- Masons (bricklayers)
- Power station workers
- Railway workers
- Shipyard workers
Source: Safe Work Australia
Health and medical professionals recommend that workers in these and other industries that handled or were exposed to asbestos seek medical attention for diagnosis and treatment for asbestos-related diseases, as soon as symptoms occur.
Mesothelioma is a very slow developing disease, but this lethal lung disease in not by any means a silent killer. Patients say it is a very painful disease. Mesothelioma has a slow onset period, usually about 20-40 years and most patients succumb to the disease about 6 – 18 months after diagnosis. There is no cure for this lung disease. Health and medical professionals focus on the patients having a comfortable existence until they pass.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or illness. Anyone who has health-related concerns and questions about mesothelioma or other health conditions should seek advice from a fully licensed health or medical professional as soon as possible.
“Asbestosis. Causes”. Mayo Clinic.
“Asbestosis. Symptoms”. Mayo Clinic.
“Asbestos-related Disease Indicators”. Safe Work Australia. Commonwealth of Australia. August 2010.
“Fibro and Asbestos – FAQ”. NSW Government.
Lavelle, Peter. “Asbestos”. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“Mesothelioma Symptoms”. Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.