Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos inhalation. If asbestos dust is inhaled, the fibers embed into the lining of the organs, where mesothelioma can develop. It is estimated that 43,000 people around the world die annually from mesothelioma. By 2020, the mesothelioma death rate in developed countries – such as New Zealand, is expected to increase.
Current public health (Ministry) advice regarding non-occupational exposure was updated in 2016, and is available here.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material that was commonly used in building materials through the 1970s due to its resistance to fire, heat and electricity. Asbestos is microscopic and not visible to the naked eye. The material can be found in wallpaper, insulation, shingles, cement, caulking, and floor/ceiling tiles. In addition to building materials asbestos was a key component in the production of vehicle parts, most commonly brake pads.
In New Zealand there were two factories that produced asbestos products – one in Auckland and the other in Riccarton. The first was established in 1938 at Penrose in Auckland by the Australian company James Hardie Ltd. The second factory, operated by the local company Fletcher Construction, was established in Riccarton, a suburb of Christchurch, in 1943. It is believed that at peak production, in the mid-1970s, the Penrose plant employed up to 600 employees. The Christchurch plant, Durock Industries, operated until 1974. It is estimated that between 900 and 2000 people were employed over the life of the factory.
While the material is now completely banned in New Zealand the substance is still widely used in developing countries such as China, India, Russia, and Brazil.
So, What is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma cancer can develop in four different locations – in the lining of the lungs, heart, abdominal cavity, and the testicles. Pleural mesothelioma, which develops in the lungs, is the most common form of the disease. Pleural mesothelioma accounts for 75 percent of all cases of the disease. Symptoms of the disease vary based on where the cancer develops and are often confused with other more common illnesses. Patients are frequently misdiagnosed with either influenza or pneumonia. Diagnosis is further complicated by mesotheliomas long latency period. Symptoms of the disease often do not manifest until 20 to 40 years after asbestos exposure occurs. The most common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include chest pain, weight loss, fatigue, fever and night sweats. Due to the complications surrounding diagnosis many patients are not properly diagnosed until the cancer has progressed to stage 4. At this stage of the disease the only option is palliative care.
There is currently no cure for mesothelioma but prognosis greatly improves with early diagnosis. If you believe you may have been exposed to asbestos speak with a medical professional about your concerns.