Mesothelioma Remains Rare In Spite of Increases
According to one mesothelioma website, this form of cancer (malignant mesothelioma) continues to crop up in a population exposed to asbestos during the height of its popularity, 20 to 50 years ago.
In fact, asbestos – the only known cause of mesothelioma – was on its way to an absolute ban in 1990, or 20 years ago, thanks to the U.S. Environmental Protection’s Agency’s (EPA's) prohibition against its use passed in 1989. The EPA is the federal agency which regulates asbestos in products, or ACMs, under both the Clean Air Act NESHAP (National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants) regulations and the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA Asbestos Ban and Phaseout.
This ban was later overturned by a New Orleans appeals court in 1991, at the behest of manufacturers, but only six categories of ACMs remain on the banned list. These include: corrugated paper, rollboard, commercial paper, specialty paper, flooring felt, and all new uses of asbestos.
A number of ACMs were removed from the ban. These include: asbestos-cement flat sheet, asbestos-cement corrugated sheet, pipeline wrap, asbestos clothing,
roofing felt, automatic transmission components, vinyl-asbestos floor tile, asbestos-cement shingle, millboard, brake blocks, asbestos-cement pipe, clutch facings, friction materials, disc brake pads, non-roofing coatings, drum brake linings, gaskets, and roof coatings.
Asbestos use reached its heyday in the 1960s primarily because of its superb insulative qualities and its ability to resist chemical degradation. After the 60s, facing pressure from public-interest and public health groups – and the government, all of whom had begun to recognize its dangers – usage gradually declined.
This peak, however, also signals the peak of the mesothelioma epidemic, which lags behind exposure by about 50 years – the amount of time it takes for asbestos exposure to appear as cancer in the human body and thus on diagnostic tests.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of mesothelial tissues which surround and protect the lungs, heart and abdominal organs. Occurring most often as pleural mesothelioma, in the lungs (in 75 percent of cases), this rare cancer can also crop up as peritoneal mesothelioma, around the abdominal organs (in 10-20 percent of cases), or as pericardial mesothelioma, around the heart, in as few as one percent of cases, though exact statistics are hard to come by due to the cancer’s rarity, the failure of doctors to diagnose it accurately in all instances, and the fact that it may not even show up on an autopsy.
In fact, the symptoms of mesothelioma so often mimic influenza, COPD, asthma or even lung cancer, that many people are incorrectly diagnosed when they first consult an oncologist, or cancer doctor, in the earliest stages of the disease, and this inevitably leads to their being incorrectly treated until it is too late.
There is no cure for mesothelioma, and the approximately 2,500 Americans diagnosed annually are usually in the latter stages of the disease and are given about a year to live.
According to Dr. Roy Smythe, Glen and Rita K. Roney Endowed Chair of the Department of Surgery for Scott & White Healthcare – a central Texas health system operating 10 Texas hospitals as primary or partner, and 60 specialty and urgent care clinics – only about 10 places in the nation see a large volume of patients with mesothelioma.
Dr. Smythe himself reports seeing two to four mesothelioma patients a month, and suggests that there may be a few more that attend the clinic and never see him. In spite of that, the number of mesothelioma patients in the state is probably larger than average, due to the state’s greater size and population, and the fact that the coastal population was involved in the ship-building industry after WWII, and much of the rest of the state was, and is, involved in the oil and refining industries, which were at one time notorious for their use of ACMs.
According to Dr. Smythe, who is also Professor of Surgery and Molecular and Cellular Medicine at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, and the founder of the Magic Carpet Foundation, which provides financial support to victims and families of rare oncologic diseases, mesothelioma is not caused by infrequent or isolated exposure to asbestos, such as might occur in a school or other public building.
Rather, the real problem lies with military or occupational exposure; that is, ongoing exposure to asbestos on a regular basis. To support that, studies by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, or NIOSH, demonstrate an increased incidence of pleural imaging abnormalities after six months of asbestos exposure, with significant, observable changes occurring in 10 to 30 percent of patients after 20 years of exposure.
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