I had the opportunity to appear as the special guest for the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s “Safe & Sound” podcast.
In the episode, I spoke with host Craig Sorrell about the dangers of asbestos and some of the health conditions linked to asbestos exposure.
AIHA serves certified industrial hygienists along with other professionals who may encounter asbestos-containing materials as part of the job.
Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below.
Craig Sorrell: Welcome to Safe & Sound. I am Craig Sorrell, and today’s show is actually inspired from a high school student named Darren who contacted me wanting to know about the dangers of asbestos and what exactly asbestos is. I helped him out, but while I was helping him I realized that the questions he had, a lot of other people may have too. I don’t think a lot of people know exactly what mesothelioma is, what asbestosis is, and what some of the other cancers related to asbestos exposure are. I felt that people who have been exposed to asbestos don’t really know where to go for the best resources.
I actually contacted the Mesothelioma Center at www.asbestos.com, and they were kind enough to agree to come on the show. Today’s guest is Michelle Whitmer, who has been quoted in The New York Times on the dangers of asbestos exposure. She’s been a writer and editor for Asbestos.com for nearly three years. She knows what she’s talking about and can tell us a little bit about what the dangers of asbestos exposure are, where it’s still being used and what to do if you feel you’ve been exposed to asbestos.
Asbestos Is a Proven Human Carcinogen
Right now I would like to welcome to the show Michelle Whitmer, who is from Asbestos.com, the Mesothelioma Center, to talk about asbestos and its effects. Michelle, welcome to the show.
Michelle Whitmer: Hi, thank you.
Sorrell: So Michelle, we do have an audience of certified industrial hygienists as well as other safety organizations, but we also have some newbies to the show. Could you explain what exactly is asbestos?
Whitmer: The term asbestos refers to a class of naturally occurring mineral fibers that have been mined around the world and used for many commercial purposes. Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that can be found pretty much anywhere and is known for its multitude of uses, especially as insulation.
Sorrell: So if it’s good for insulation, why does asbestos get such a bad rap? Every news station you could possibly imagine has talked about how bad asbestos is.
Whitmer: Yes, unfortunately asbestos is a toxic mineral, and it is proven to be a human carcinogen. Asbestos can lead to diseases such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer and the International Agency for Research on Cancer even confirmed in March 2009 that exposure can cause ovarian cancer. We’ve also learned from the National Cancer Institute that some studies suggest an association between asbestos exposure and gastrointestinal cancer, colorectal cancer, as well as an elevated risk for developing kidney, throat, esophagus and gallbladder cancer. It’s earned a pretty bad reputation because of all the different diseases and complications it can cause to human health.
Asbestos Use Remains High in Developing Countries
Sorrell: If it’s so bad, I have to ask, why is it still around? Why are we still using it?
Whitmer: Asbestos has been very cheap and it is easy to mine from the earth. It is readily used in many different products, so corporations have found it to be economically great for them. It has been used in the U.S., but now more so in developing countries.
Sorrell: You said that asbestos is a naturally occurring fiber. Does this mean that it’s still being mined?
Whitmer: Yes, it’s actually still being mined in certain countries around the globe because it’s cheap and easy and there’s a demand for it. Many developing countries are using it in quite large quantities for a number of products, many of which are for construction. The world leaders in asbestos mining are currently Russia, China and Brazil. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, asbestos has not been mined in the United States since 2002, but an estimated 45,000 U.S. miners are still exposed to it because it forms naturally alongside other minerals that are being mined.
Mesothelioma Is Rare and Has a Long Latency Period
Sorrell: We talked about the health implications of asbestos and you mentioned mesothelioma. Many people have heard the term, and I’m sure anyone who has stayed up late at night has seen the lawyers on TV talking about suing companies over asbestos exposure or mesothelioma diagnoses. But what exactly is mesothelioma?
Whitmer: That’s a great question. Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer that primarily affects the lining of the lungs, but can also affect the lining of the abdomen and heart. And it takes anywhere between 20 and 50 years to develop mesothelioma after initial exposure to asbestos takes place. This is the case for most asbestos-related diseases because the fibers slowly cause damage over the course of decades in the human body.
Sorrell: So is mesothelioma something that is common if you have been exposed to asbestos?
Whitmer: Actually, it’s not. It is considered relatively rare, and professionals even say that asbestos-induced lung cancer is even more common than mesothelioma. But mesothelioma has a reputation for being a very aggressive cancer, and once diagnosed most patients do not survive very long.
Sorrell: Do you know about how many people are diagnosed with this every year?
Whitmer: Yes, in the United States approximately 2,000 to 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are reported every year. This comprises around 0.3 percent of all U.S. cancer cases.
Mesothelioma Has No Definitive Cure
Sorrell: So what are the symptoms of mesothelioma? And can it actually be treated?
Whitmer: The major form of mesothelioma is pleural, and this affects the lungs. So symptoms tend to include persistent or dry raspy cough, shortness of breath and pain while breathing or in the general chest or rib area. Patients can cough up blood, have difficulty swallowing, experience night sweats or fever and in late stages of development there can even be an appearance of lumps under the skin on the chest.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for this cancer. Mesothelioma is primarily treated through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but patients often undergo multiple treatments to combat the disease. This is called multimodality therapy. The combination of treatments helps to treat the cancer in various ways which aims to improve the patient’s life expectancy, but there is still no cure. Other experimental procedures such as immunotherapy, photodynamic therapy and gene therapy are also being used to treat mesothelioma patients. But since these treatments are largely still in the experimental stage, they are typically only available through clinical trials right now.
Differences Between Mesothelioma and Asbestosis
Sorrell: And is mesothelioma the same thing as asbestosis?
Whitmer: No. Mesothelioma is a cancer and asbestosis is a progressive pulmonary lung disease. They do share some similar symptoms such as difficulty breathing and chest pain, but they are considered separate conditions. Those with asbestosis may go on to develop asbestos-related cancers such as lung cancer or mesothelioma.
Sorrell: I think our safety professionals are more on the prevention side, so the ultimate question is how can these cancers be prevented?
Whitmer: Of course the best way to prevent asbestos-related disease is to avoid asbestos exposure at all costs. Sometimes people can’t do this depending upon where they work or live, so those concerned about dangerous exposure can seek proper protection through protective clothing and respirators.
Legal Rights for Workers Exposed to Asbestos
Sorrell: If you feel that you’ve been exposed to asbestos, what are your legal rights as a worker?
Whitmer: The legal rights for workers exposed to asbestos are largely set by OSHA, which is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Workers who suspect that they are being exposed to asbestos can contact OSHA for the rights and regulations specific to their industry and situation. OSHA set the current workplace standard for asbestos exposure in 1994, which is 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of air. This exposure level allows a worker to inhale more than 1 million fibers over the course of a day’s work. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, exposures at this level will produce five lung cancer deaths and two asbestosis deaths for every 1,000 workers exposed over their lifetime.
Sorrell: Wow. How are employers responsible for preventing exposure? Is OSHA regulating where the responsibility lies?
Whitmer: Yes, OSHA also sets the regulations that hold employers responsible for providing a safe working environment for their employees. Employers are required to provide safety equipment and proper protection to prevent dangerous exposure to asbestos in the workplace.
Resources Available at Asbestos.com
Sorrell: We could probably talk about asbestos forever. I mean, it seems like a topic that can go on and on. Is there a place where people can find out more information about asbestos exposure and related cancers?
Whitmer: Yes, people can go to Asbestos.com to learn more about the risks of exposure and what to do if they’ve been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease. The website offers a lot of information to those searching for answers. Many people who are just diagnosed with the disease don’t even know what mesothelioma is. They are often looking for answers to a number of diverse questions, so we’ve tried to create a one stop, come-and-get-it location at this website to help people get all their resources from one location.
We also provide a number of services to patients who have been diagnosed with some form of asbestos-related disease. We have patient advocates who are always available to answer questions and help patients find treatment facilities in their area. We also offer a doctor match program and informational books and materials to help patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options.
Inform Your Doctor of Exposure History
Sorrell: That’s awesome being able to have that one-stop shop where you can find the doctors and experts in your area. And one final question: If you feel you’ve been exposed to asbestos, what should you do?
Whitmer: If you’ve been exposed to asbestos it’s important to inform your doctor of your exposure history. And it’s even more important to personally seek regular medical exams to check for signs of asbestos disease. You should maintain healthy habits, and you should never smoke cigarettes if you have been exposed to asbestos because this can increase your risk for lung cancer and make your lungs weakened to the asbestos fibers. So it’s important to get your regular checkups because early detection can make the biggest difference in treatment options.
Sorrell: Michelle, I really thank you for your time and for coming on the show to tell us a little bit about asbestos. Again, we’re really just scratching the surface. Once again, the website is Asbestos.com.
Whitmer: Thank you.
Sorrell: Michelle made an excellent point on making sure that you get checked out by a doctor if you work with or have been exposed to asbestos. Not everyone exposed to asbestos will develop an asbestos-related disease, but long term exposure does increase the possibility. Also, if someone that you live with or are around a lot works directly with asbestos, you may be at risk, too. There have been cases reported about individuals who don’t work with asbestos developing mesothelioma through secondary exposure.
And as Michelle was saying, approximately 2,000 to 3,000 new cases are reported each year in the U.S. and more than 10,000 cases of mesothelioma have been reported worldwide. Even though Michelle gave some statistics about mesothelioma and asbestos exposure, here’s something for you to take home: The average age of a mesothelioma patient has historically been about 65 years old because mesothelioma typically has a latency period of 20 to 50 years.
If you have any questions about our guest, the facts that have been discussed on this show or you want to be a sponsor or guest on the show, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for listening.