Breathing is just about the most fundamental of human needs. And yet, air quality issues remain a problem for a lot of society. The purity of our air is affected in several ways, with both naturally-occurring contaminants and man-made substances having an impact in both outdoor and indoor settings. This includes offices, so it is important to remain vigilant and be aware of potential toxins in any environment.
There are almost a thousand known human carcinogens, with some of the most harmful found also bring the most widespread. Two that pose the greatest risk to your health if you’re exposed to them are erionite and asbestos. As part of our drive to promote Mesothelioma Awareness Month, we’ll be looking at how these chemicals contribute to 80% of cases of this cancer.
What is erionite?
Erionite is a naturally-occurring, fibrous mineral that belongs to a group of minerals called zeolites. It is usually found in volcanic ash altered by weathering and ground water. Different from asbestos, erionite forms brittle, wool-like fibre masses and although it is similar to asbestos, it is not currently regulated as one of the six asbestos fibres. It is however known to be a human carcinogen, and is listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a Group 1 Carcinogen, along with asbestos. This is a category of substances and mixtures, which, if exposed to humans, are carcinogenic in nature.
Erionite exposure contributes to:
- lung cancer
- lung problems, and
- a small number of people with a specific genetic predisposition may also develop peritoneal mesothelioma in the lining of the abdomen (following prolonged erionite exposure).
What is asbestos?
Asbestos consists of six, natural, fibrous silicate minerals:
- anthophyllite, and
Each has its own individual characteristics. However, each consists of long, thin fibrous crystals, noted for their extreme durability and efficiency as a fire-resistant material, but also as a material that poses great harm to your health once you’ve inhaled or ingested it.
Since ancient times, asbestos has been mined, manufactured and used commercially in residential and public infrastructure construction. Large-scale asbestos mining came along with the advent of industrialism in the late 19th century, but its use was steadily curtailed in the mid-20th century as health concerns, such as the following, arose as a direct result of exposure to it:
- lung cancer
- pleural effusion
- pleural plaque
- pneumothorax, and
- asbestos warts.
Did you know? Asbestos is the only scientifically-proven cause of Mesothelioma.
What is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer, affecting more than 3 000 individuals each year. Once asbestos exposure takes place, it can take between 10 and 50 years to develop symptoms.
What is its direct cause?
There are several forms of mesothelioma directly caused by asbestos exposure.
Airborne asbestos fibres are tiny, crystal-like fibres that, when they are airborne (and are inhaled or even ingested), can become lodged into the pleura lining of the lungs. This causes chronic inflammation and scar tissue, and it is this that forms mesothelioma between 10 and 50 years later. This form of mesothelioma, known as pleural mesothelioma, accounts for 90% of the approximately 3 000 mesothelioma patients diagnosed annually. It is the most common form of mesothelioma, however only 40% of patients survive more than a year.
Along with other types of mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, which develops in the lining of the abdomen, is caused primarily by asbestos exposure. It is not entirely clear how asbestos travels into the abdomen, but the most common theory is that it travels through the lymphatic system. Experts believe exposure begins when the asbestos fibres enter the body through inhalation, where they reside in the lungs. They then travel through the lymphatic system to the abdominal cavity, where fibres can become lodged in the mesothelial cells of the peritoneum. Another common theory involves ingestion, where it is possible that asbestos fibres are swallowed (directly or after being trapped in mucous during inhalation). The body cannot digest asbestos and as the fibres move through the digestive system, they can work themselves into the peritoneal cavity and then the lining of the abdomen.
This is a rare form of mesothelioma found in the pericardium, a thin layer of smooth tissue surrounding the heart. Similar to peritoneal mesothelioma, it is not known for certain how pericardial mesothelioma reaches the pericardium. However, medical examiners have found asbestos fibres in the pericardial lining in a small percentage of autopsies and 80% of patients diagnosed with pericardial mesothelioma are sure they have come into contact with asbestos.
Despite mesothelioma diagnosis and other health hazards associated with asbestos exposure, to date, asbestos is not banned in the United States and many other countries. There is no safe level of asbestos exposure and in the US there are still products with up to 1% of asbestos. And this is nothing compared to the high consumption and exportation of asbestos in China, India and Russia. Additionally, homes and structures built prior to 1980 are guaranteed to contain asbestos or asbestos-containing products, increasing your risk of being exposed to asbestos.
To learn more about asbestos and how to keep safe, participate in the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization ‘Tweet chat’ this Mesothelioma Awareness day, on Tuesday September 26th at 12pm EST. Join the conversation and help raise awareness using the hashtag #EndMeso.