Anyone who has bought or sold a home built before 1975 has likely learned about asbestos, the naturally occurring fibrous mineral that was widely used in construction until it was discovered to cause serious and even fatal illnesses.
One of those illnesses is mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive type of cancer. It is almost always directly linked to asbestos exposure — and disproportionately affects men.
“Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining around the lungs,” said Dr. Jacques P. Fontaine, director of the Mesothelioma Research and Treatment Center at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. In addition, the cancer can affect the mesothelial cells of the abdomen, heart or, extremely rarely, the testicles.
“About 70% of mesothelioma cases affect the lining around the lungs, so it’s a form of chest cancer or lung cancer,” Fontaine said. “The reason why you get this cancer — the one reason we know for sure, that has been proven without a doubt ever since the 1970s — is the fact that people breathe in asbestos fibers.”
Only about 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year, according to the American Cancer Society, and most of them are men. That’s because men traditionally performed the jobs that exposed workers to asbestos before its risks were publicly known, said attorney Rod Dellano, partner at Danziger & Dellano, LLP, in Houston, whose specialties include mesothelioma cases.
Mesothelioma mostly affects older people, and 72 is the average age at diagnosis. The disease takes decades to develop; the shortest latency period Dellano has encountered is 15 years, while other cases have happened 25 to 50 years after exposure.
“The reason it’s more prevalent in men is that most of the trades — pipe fitters, insulators, boilermakers, mechanics – were done by men during that time, as well as service in the Navy, Dellano said. “And most of the people who worked with asbestos and manipulated it were men.” Those tasks included manufacturing or changing brake pads on cars, working construction, installing or removing tile, heating and cooling repair and installation, and plumbing and electrical work.
“The majority of people who have asbestos exposure do not develop mesothelioma,” Fontaine said. “In fact, a minority of them develop mesothelioma — but it can cause other problems,” including asbestosis, a noncancerous lung disease.
Women are also diagnosed with mesothelioma, though at lower rates. Some women were exposed in the workplace, but most experienced what’s called “secondary exposure” or “household exposure” to asbestos. Quite often, they inhaled the fibers while washing work clothes, or even by breathing in the fibers left behind on car seats. They were also exposed via baby powder.
Fontaine’s surgical group treats about 150 mesothelioma cases per year. Although asbestos exposure is decreasing tremendously, mesothelioma cases will continue to be diagnosed due to the extended latency of the illness. Workers and the general public only learned about the dangers of asbestos in the 1970s — but companies knew it was carcinogenic as far back as the 1930s.
“Workers in chemical plants and refineries tell stories of having ‘snowball fights’ with the asbestos,” Dellano said. Asbestos is lightweight, insulating and fire-resistant, and it has been used for thousands of years. Less than 50 years ago, asbestos was prevalent in everything from floor and ceiling tiles and joint compound around pipes to brake pads and fireproofing materials.
“Imagine working with it for 15 years, and all of a sudden you find out that it is a toxic substance,” Dellano said.
Symptoms of mesothelioma
While you shouldn’t panic, Fontaine said, you also shouldn’t brush off any symptoms if you are at higher risk for mesothelioma. “If you think you’ve had significant exposure through your work decades ago and you develop symptoms, then you should have a higher awareness that it may be due to mesothelioma,” he said.
Seek treatment earlier rather than later, he added, for symptoms including:
- shortness of breath
- chest pains
- tightness in chest
- difficulty breathing
- fluid around lungs
If you are diagnosed, find a doctor with experience treating this rare disease, Fontaine urged. “Treatment is very tough, and there are very few specialists,” he said.
And, Dellano said, the same goes for finding an attorney. “Very few lawyers are ever going to see a mesothelioma case due to the rare nature of the disease,” he said. “If someone has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, they should try to act quickly and choose their lawyer carefully. Make sure they have a lot of experience in the area.”
If you or a loved one have been exposed to asbestos or have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, contact Danziger & Dellano or go to www.mesofunds.com to learn about your eligibility for financial compensation.