Mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive type of cancer, overwhelmingly caused by exposure to asbestos, a group of minerals widely used in construction and other industries through much of the 20th century.  Tiny asbestos fibers used in materials and buildings can enter the body either by being inhaled or ingested, usually swallowed, when these fibers are released into the air. Those that become trapped in the body can cause irritation, inflammation and cellular changes that can lead to mesothelioma tumors.

In the 1970s asbestos was recognized as a carcinogen, and its use began to be strictly limited or banned. Millions of people, especially workers in construction and other key industries, had already been exposed, however, and many others continue to be exposed  by breathing in or swallowing tiny particles of asbestos as dust (in air or liquids) that are released during the renovation or demolition of older buildings, or the breakdown of asbestos-containing materials, like insulation.  It typically takes 20 to 50 years for people to experience symptoms of the disease following exposure, and long-term exposure is usually needed for a person to be at risk of developing mesothelioma. But short-term and even one-time exposure can be sufficient for the disease to develop. Because of its long latency period, disease prevention can be difficult — but avoiding exposure to asbestos is a best first step.

Mesothelioma Prevention at the Workplace

Asbestos is still present in older buildings, which is why prevention education is important. The workplace is the most likely place for people to have come into contact with this carcinogen. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulated acceptable levels of asbestos in the air at worksites in the early 1970s, requiring employers to test the air and keep asbestos levels below 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter (f/cc) during an eight-hour work shift. In addition, employers are required to protect their workers by performing and recording air monitoring, completing regular risks evaluation, communicating asbestos hazards to the employees, using proper work practices, providing respiratory protection, and offering awareness training .

While employers are obliged to follow set guidelines, it is also important for employees to be aware of the risks and take preventative measures. According to OSHA, workers are: entitled to ask about any asbestos health risks in their workplace; never be required to cut, saw, drill, sand, scrap, or disturb materials with asbestos; be outfitted with protective gear near asbestos; advised to not bring work clothes or shoes that may be contaminated home; not to sweep, dust or vacuum asbestos debris; and to always dispose of asbestos materials in accordance with state and federal regulations.

Traditionally, jobs that most put workers at risk include some areas of mining, factory work, insulation manufacturing and installation, railroad and automotive work, ship building, gas mask manufacturing, plumbing, and construction.

Renovation of older buildings that may contain asbestos is a continuing risk, and workers in such buildings should use protective equipment and follow safety procedures.

Mesothelioma Prevention at Home

People can also be exposed in their own homes, since many houses built before 1980 used asbestos-based materials. Asbestos was used in insulation, roof shingles and flashing, drywall and drywall glue, floor and ceiling tiles, popcorn ceilings, joint compounds, and in the wrapping of pipes and electrical wires. Professional air tests can be done to check for asbestos levels in the home. It is important that homeowners not undertake renovations that may disturb asbestos on their own, because drilling or renovation work can release unexposed fibers into the air.

Asbestos becomes a hazard when it is airborne, and fibers can be released as dust — as, for instance, when asbestos insulation around boilers, furnaces, and pipes deteriorate — and be dangerous.

Qualified contractors are equipped to remove asbestos safely, if removal is necessary. A homeowner, however, should never attempt to remove asbestos-containing materials alone.

Mesothelioma Prevention in Public Places

Schools and other public and commercial buildings also widely used asbestos-containing materials because of its fire-resistant qualities before the 1980s. Governmental organizations, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have since established a number of regulations and recommendations to help protect people from asbestos health risks in public places. “The EPA enforces the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), which requires building owners to comply with federal laws on asbestos. NESHAP has strict rules for building renovations and demolitions to make sure these activities are completed safely without putting people at risk for asbestos exposure,” notes the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “The EPA also regulates asbestos in schools. The agency helps keep students and teachers at public and nonprofit private schools safe from asbestos with the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA). AHERA requires every school to inspect for asbestos-containing materials and prepare a plan to manage asbestos risks and prevent exposures. Every school must keep the asbestos management plan on site and update it with each inspection.”

Asbestos removal requirements include shutting off forced-air heating systems, fitting asbestos workers with approved respirators and other protective gear, wetting asbestos during the removal process, and its appropriate disposal.

Other Prevention Steps

Anyone who suspects they were exposed to asbestos, such as workers in high-risk industries noted above, should get regular checkups, be aware of the symptoms of this cancer’s four types, and report such symptoms immediately to their doctor.

Not smoking, or quitting, is also important in preventing mesothelioma. While tobacco smoking does not lead directly to mesothelioma, smokers who were exposed to asbestos are thought to be between 50 and 80 times more likely to develop pleural mesothelioma than those who do not smoke.

Note: Mesothelioma Research News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.