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Asbestos can cause deadly type of lung tumor called pleural mesothelioma. Although survival of affected patients is low and treatment options are limited, recent progress gives hope for improvements in the near future.

Asbestos has got lots of negative publicity. The discovery that it is linked to lung cancer has caused practically total ban of this material from industrial use.  But what exactly is the problem and how common it is? There are several misconceptions here that this article aims to address.

Exposure to asbestos is a serious health hazard

Asbestos is a natural fibrous material. In the form of dust, it can easily be inhaled. When this happens, the fibers precipitate on the surface of lungs and stay there forever, since asbestos is insoluble and cannot be removed from the body. Obviously, construction workers are the most exposed part of population since in not so distant part many of them were dealing with asbestos on the daily basis. But most of us have also been in contact with this harmful material since many older building still contain plenty of asbestos.

Asbestos rarely causes immediate serious problems. Intensive or prolonged exposure to the material can cause asbestosis – a chronic inflammatory condition characterized by shortness of breath and even respiratory failure in the advanced cases. But major trouble with asbestos (and the major reason it is not in use anymore) is its link with lung malignancies.

Asbestos causes lung mesothelioma

Contrary to the common opinion, asbestos is rarely causing lung cancer. The type of tumor triggered by asbestos is called malignant mesothelioma. Usually this disease happens in the lungs (and thus become known as pleural mesothelioma) but can also occur in other parts of the body such as linings of the stomach. The difference between lung cancer and lung mesothelioma is in the site of origin – the cells that become cancerous and produce tumor come from different tissues. Lung cancer originates from the cells of lungs themselves while pleural mesothelioma begins from the cells of mesothelium, the linings of the lung. The particles of asbestos are large in size and can’t go deep into lungs thus causing the problems on the surface of this organ rather than in the deep layers of lung tissues.

Both lung cancer and lung mesothelioma have similar symptoms. Both are very aggressive and deadly diseases that tend to develop quickly. For both we have very few effective methods of treatment and management. But their mechanisms are different. This means that drugs that will be eventually developed for these malignancies will have to work differently.

Popular media led us to believe that asbestos-caused malignancies are very common. In fact, this is not entirely correct. Lung mesothelioma is a relatively rare disease. Around 3,000 cases of this disease are registered in the US each year. For comparison, around 200,000 lung cancer cases happen each year among Americans.

Why lung mesothelioma is a major concern?

Even though the frequency of asbestos-linked lung mesothelioma is relatively low, the number of incidences is growing. The reason for this is that disease can have an incredibly long incubation period of 20 years or even more. Some patients have developed cancer 50 years after asbestos exposure. Those insulators workers who were exposed to asbestos decades ago in their twenties can get disease now when they are already retired.

Unfortunately, like in the case of usual lung cancer, the early detection of pleural mesothelioma represents a significant problem. We simply have no effective methods of doing so. CT scan is the only way of catching the disease early. The scans should be performed at regular intervals, ideally every 6 months or so. Needless to say, this is an expensive option that is not available to everyone. Also, we have nothing to prevent the development of disease, and people with the known exposure to asbestos can do very little to reduce their chances of getting cancer.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Paul J Villeneuve, Marie-Élise Parent, Shelley A Harris et al. (2012) Occupational exposure to asbestos and lung cancer in men: evidence from a population-based case-control study in eight Canadian provinces. BMC Cancer 12:595
  • Dogan, A.U. et al. (2006) Genetic predisposition to fiber carcinogenesis causes a mesothelioma epidemics in Turkey. Cancer Research 66, 5063-5068
  • John T. Hodgson and Andrew Darnton (2000) The quantitative risks of mesothelioma and lung cancer in relation to asbestos exposure. Ann Occup Hyg (2000) 44 (8): 65-601Photo courtesy of Ashley Burton by Flickr :
  • Photo courtesy of Chris Bentley by Flickr :

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