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Mesothelioma Cancer: The Lingering Legacy of Asbestos Use in the U.S.

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Asbestos Hazard sign

My first introduction to asbestos was watching workers wearing masks and taking fluffy, pink insulation out of the ceiling of my old school building – it looked like cotton candy. It never occurred to me that it could kill people.

Millions of Americans who worked with it didn’t think so either.

It has been about 40 years since the United States started to phase out the use of asbestos – a toxic, carcinogenic fiber once held in high esteem for its durability and fire resistance. Unfortunately, Americans are still at risk for developing mesothelioma, a deadly cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

Even more disturbing: The incidence rate hasn’t dropped in decades.

A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health revealed that a little more than 3,000 Americans are diagnosed each year. There was a slight decrease in men developing the disease, while the number of women remained steady.

Even decades after asbestos use peaked in this country, the disease continues to haunt those exposed to it – in most cases, with deadly consequences.

After asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they can latch onto the lining of the lungs, stomach and even the heart, eventually causing cancer cells to form. The process of developing mesothelioma is slow and can take 20 to 50 years.

Symptoms don’t usually show up until later stages, and the disease is aggressive – once diagnosed, average survival is only 1 year. Experts say the long latency is one of the reasons the disease rate remains steady many years after the country phased out the production of asbestos-containing materials.

The story of mesothelioma is a complex one, filled with controversy, cover-ups and unsuspecting, hard-working people who never knew their employers were exposing them to a substance that could kill them.

‘White Gold’

Many Americans have only heard about mesothelioma and asbestos from late-night television commercials.

When it was discovered in the 1800s, people called asbestos “white gold” because of the white, snow-like appearance of the most commonly used type of asbestos, chrysotile – and because of the vast amounts of money manufacturers made.

For many, it symbolized prosperity and modernization, and its use ramped up during the industrial revolution.

Cities grew up around asbestos mines all over the world, and asbestos manufacturers grew in power and influence. The residents of these towns like Libby, Mont. got used to seeing the deadly dust covering their cars, lawns and drifting into their homes.

They also got used to getting sick.

In the mines, factories and the towns around them, asbestosis (scarring of the lungs), lung cancer and mesothelioma plagued residents and workers.

Studies show that as early as the 1930s, manufacturing companies knew about the dangers but did not inform workers. Asbestos was everywhere. It was used in virtually every industry: clothing, kitchen appliances, automobiles, construction products and even talcum powder. The military used asbestos in its Army proving grounds, bases, weapons and Navy ships.

Asbestos companies were reluctant to give up their profits. When concern over growing health problems surfaced, they formed powerful lobbying organizations to keep the truth about the mineral from surfacing.

E.A. Martin, director of purchases for the Bendix corporation, now Honeywell, summed up the industry’s response to endangering its workers in a 1966 letter to a representative of Johns Manville: “My answer to the problem is: If you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it?”

Legal Backlash for Asbestos Manufacturers

The proof was too much to deny by the 1970s, however, and the truth about asbestos and its link to mesothelioma and lung disease was exposed. By then, though, it was too late for thousands of people already exposed to the mineral.

Many mesothelioma patients and their families turned to the legal system to hold asbestos companies accountable.

When the mesothelioma lawsuits began pouring in, asbestos manufacturers were forced to set aside billions of dollars to settle the barrage of claims. By the early 2000s, nearly a million lawsuits were filed.

Buckling under the weight of liability claims, many manufacturers filled bankruptcy and set up trusts to compensate mesothelioma patients.

Hope for Mesothelioma Patients

The incidence rates of the disease may be holding steady, but a study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that the mortality rate is actually decreasing in the United States.

More promising treatment options in robot-assisted surgery, chemotherapy and new novel therapies are also on the horizon.

For many researchers, targeted therapy is the new frontier. By studying genetic markers, scientists can develop more targeted drugs that attack mesothelioma cells.

Massachusetts-based Varastem, Inc. announced that it was developing a new mesothelioma drug that stops the growth of cancer stem cells, an underlying cause of tumor recurrence and metastasis.

According to the company, the new drug – for now, called VS-6063 – showed promising results in patients in the initial Phase I study, and in June 2013 the European Commission granted the drug orphan medicinal product status.

In a press release, Robert Forrester, Verastem president and chief operating officer, said: “We are in discussions with regulatory agencies worldwide. We plan to start the randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial of VS-6063 in mesothelioma later this summer.”

Only a few years ago, a mesothelioma diagnosis meant a grim prognosis of a year, or less. Now, thanks in part to these new therapies, more patients are surviving for longer, and we move a little closer to seeing the end of this brutal disease.

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