According to the Health and Safety Executive, mesothelioma caused 2,523 deaths in Great Britain (PDF file) in 2017. The average number of mesothelioma deaths in the previous three years was around the same number. The latest projections also suggest this will continue to be the number of average mesothelioma-related deaths every year for the next few years.
These are scary numbers, especially when you consider that the substance that causes mesothelioma has been considered illegal and banned in the UK for decades.
What Is Mesothelioma & How Is It Caused?
Mesothelioma is an aggressive, incurable form of cancer that affects the pleura or the lining of the lung. In almost every case, the condition is caused by exposure to asbestos. The cancer takes several years to develop after the asbestos exposure but once it does, the prognosis is grim. Mesothelioma is untreatable and is always fatal. 50% of sufferers succumb to the disease in less than eight months after the onset of the symptoms.
Asbestos is a versatile, naturally-occurring material, which was once considered a boon to the construction industry. It was used extensively in diverse applications in the construction industry from fireproofing and insulating entire buildings to pipe insulations, ceiling tiles, floor tiles, boilers and spray coatings for ceilings and walls.
Asbestos is made up of tiny needle-shaped fibres. Whenever an asbestos sheet is cut, broken or disturbed in any way, it releases these fine, tiny fibres, which spread quickly because of their small size and light weight. When these fibres are inhaled, they get into the lung tissue. As the individual breathes, the fibres get pushed to the periphery, where they get embedded into the pleura or lining of the lungs and just lie there. Several years later, they may begin to form several small clumps or tumours across the pleural membrane.
Over a period of time, these clumps get larger and thicker and can develop into cancer. This type of cancer is known as mesothelioma. When it reaches this stage, the diseases progresses very rapidly, with most sufferers succumbing within eight months to a year after the symptoms manifest.
No Simple Solution
When the dangers of asbestos became fully known sometime in the late 1990s, the use of asbestos and all products containing this material were banned in the UK. Unfortunately, it was not that simple. Even removing the asbestos was a potential risk as disturbing the existing asbestos could also release the toxic fibres into the atmosphere. To minimise the risk, the authorities issued detailed guidelines about how to remove all asbestos and asbestos products safety. This was particularly critical as mesothelioma can be caused by simply inhaling the asbestos fibres and asbestos dust from the atmosphere.
However, despite the ban and all warnings regarding the dangers of exposure to asbestos, there are many buildings across the UK, including schools, homes and hospitals that still contain products made of asbestos. Until recently, some schools and colleges still used asbestos mats in the laboratory for placing under hot Bunsen burners.
Why Asbestos Embedded In Buildings Still Pose A Danger Today
Until the late 1990s, asbestos was used in abundance in the construction of large public buildings, libraries, town halls schools and hospitals. Shed roofs, floor tiles and ceilings that were constructed before the late 1990s almost always contained some amount of asbestos.
Although the major asbestos components were removed and replaced with safer materials, some components were overlooked. For example, because of its fire-resistant and insulating properties, asbestos was commonly used as lagging on pipes. These were typically situated below ground level and they were not considered as a major risk if controlled and maintained. However, there have been cases of hospital staff and patients who were exposed to the lethal fibres released from the asbestos-lagged pipes after eating in the basement cafeteria or even while using the pedestrian tunnels.
There are several inherent risks with having asbestos present in buildings today. As most people are unaware about the presence of asbestos, they do not take the necessary precautionary measures and no effort is made to get rid of it. This itself is dangerous as asbestos may crack, get disturbed or start to deteriorate over the years. This can put all people visiting the building at risk of inhaling the fibres.
The biggest problem with treating mesothelioma is the fact that it is diagnosed only when it has reached an advanced stage. By that time the disease has taken firm hold and most treatments are ineffective.
Symptoms of mesothelioma range from persistent coughing and breathlessness to pain in the chest and lower back caused by build up of fluid around the lining of the lung. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, your doctors may decide to proceed with appropriate treatment depending on your symptoms, age and general health and how far the cancer has advanced.
Today, there are several methods being used to treat mesothelioma, with varying degrees of success. Three of the more common treatments are:
- Chemotherapy – In this treatment, an intravenous drip is used to deliver chemotherapy drugs that are powerful enough to kill the cancer cells. This is the least invasive of all treatment options.
- Surgery – Removing the tumours surgically is considered the most effective way of stopping the growth and spread of the cancer. It is increasingly becoming the preferred method of treating mesothelioma, unless for some reason, surgery is not possible.
- Radiation – Radiation is considered highly effective and works by shrinking and killing the cancerous tumours. The only reason it is not used as often to treat mesothelioma is because the radiation itself is dangerous and can damage the DNA.
If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, in addition to commencing treatment as early as possible, it is also important to consult with a legal professional about your options as you may be entitled to file a claim for compensation. More information on mesothelioma claims can be found here.