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Mesothelioma

The Health Effects of Asbestos

Compiled by Pascale Krumm, Ph.D., Office of Policy and External Affairs Asbestos is a fibrous substance classified as a human carcinogen. Asbestos fibers can enter the body through inhalation or ingestion. Because the body cannot break down or eliminate asbestos fibers once they enter the lungs or body tissues, the fibers become trapped, causing serious health problems. Exposure to asbestos can lead to signs of lung abnormalities (pleural plaques) or to scarring of the lung tissues (asbestosis), and two types of cancer (lung cancer and mesothelioma).

The risk for asbestos-related disease depends on many factors, including type of asbestos fiber, level of exposure, duration of exposure, and the smoking history of the person. The latency period for these diseases ranges from 10 years to 30 years. Following is a description of the three known asbestos-related diseases.

* Asbestosis is a serious, chronic, noncancerous respiratory illness. It causes scarring of the lung tissues, making breathing more difficult as the scarring increases. The disease can lead to heart failure. Asbestosis is usually caused by chronic occupational exposure to asbestos. No effective treatment exists for asbestosis, and the disease can be disabling or fatal.

* Lung cancer accounts for about 50 percent of all asbestos-related diseases. Studies have shown that asbestos workers are five times more likely to develop lung cancer than are workers who are not exposed to asbestos. In addition, asbestos workers who smoke are 50 to 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer than are nonsmokers who are not exposed to asbestos. In the United States, only 14 percent of patients with lung cancer survive for five years.

* Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the chest or abdomen. This form of cancer is rare-about 200 cases are diagnosed in the United States each year. Mesothelioma is incurable and is usually fatal within one year of diagnosis. The majority of mesotheliomas are caused by exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma accounts for 10 percent to 18 percent of deaths among workers exposed to asbestos,

(Adapted from Hazardous Substances & Public Health, Vol. 112, No. 1, 2002, a publication of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, in the public domain.)

* DeVita VT., Hellman, S., & Rosenberg, S.A. (Eds.). (2001). Principles and practices of oncology (6th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.