The literal meaning of the word “asbestos” comes from the Greek, and it means “inextinguishable.” Rightfully named, this long fibrous mineral has been widely used for thousands of years because of its fireproof qualities. In fact, the ancient Greeks used asbestos for the funeral dress of kings that were to be cremated. Both the Greeks and Romans used asbestos-fiber napkins, which they would clean by throwing into the fire.
In modern times, asbestos has been used for much the same reason. In addition, the mineral is highly resistant to heat, salt water, chemical corrosion and other biological processes. It is lightweight, extremely strong, and can be woven into cloth or mixed with building materials such as concrete. Asbestos has been used for insulation purposes in a variety of items and structures, including ceilings, walls, toasters, and hairdryers. It was widely used on ships and in military applications, and at one point its use was even mandated by the U.S. military.
Unfortunately, it is now known that exposure to asbestos carries with it enormous health risks. Pleural plaques, asbestosis, and mesothelioma cancer are some of the diseases that can be caused by asbestos, especially when the exposure is prolonged and/or repeated. Although the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder observed a “sickness of the lungs” in the slaves who worked with the fiber, and the first case of asbestosis was noted as far back as the 1920s in England, the material was used in industrial applications, and its adverse effects have been ignored or even deliberately covered up, for decades.
Asbestos, once disturbed, releases tiny particles which are typically unseen by the human eye into the air. Once inhaled, these particles become lodged in the mesothelium, which is the outer lining protecting the heart, lungs and stomach. The fibers cannot be breathed out or otherwise removed from the body once they are lodged in the body’s soft tissues.
Exposure to dangerous asbestos fibers has caused the development of asbestos cancer in a variety of different employees and occupations over the years. Exposure has occurred through the mining of asbestos from the earth, construction or demolition of asbestos-containing building materials, and even by washing clothing that has been contaminated by asbestos. Various asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, have been diagnosed in people from all walks of life.
Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer whose only known cause is asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma often has a long latency period, and can remain undiagnosed for years or even decades. By the time it is diagnosed, the cancer has usually reached an advanced stage, which makes determining how to undergo mesothelioma treatment very difficult. This means that we do not yet understand the full impact of the widespread usage of asbestos in the early decades of the 20th Century, since so many people are just now being diagnosed.
Mesothelioma symptoms are generally non-specific and resemble those of common sicknesses, such as viral pneumonia, heart disease, flu and bronchitis. These symptoms include dyspnea (shortness of breath) or difficulty breathing, coughing and/or coughing up of blood, chest or abdominal pain caused by excessive fluid, weight loss, husky voice, difficulty swallowing, fever, anemia, bowel obstruction, inability to sleep, and loss of appetite. Because of the resemblance to many other diseases, mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed, or not accurately diagnosed until it has reached advanced stages. As with all cancers, mesothelioma can be more effectively treated when it is diagnosed early, but due to its long latency period and its symptoms’ similarities to other health issues, it rarely is.
Currently, mesothelioma is incurable. There are treatments which can be used to slow the disease’s progress or provide palliative care. Established therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation, experimental treatments, and holistic therapies can all be used individually or in conjunction with one another.