Cancer and Asbestos Exposure

Although the toxic nature of asbestos has been suspected ever since ancient times by historians such as Strabo and Pliny the Elder, it was not until the 20th century that reliable scientific evidence began emerging throughout Europe and the U.S. One of the first medical studies on the health effects of asbestos exposure belongs to Dr. Hubert Montague Murray, a British physician who, in 1900, analyzed the case of a 33 year-old man who had died of pulmonary fibrosis after working in a textile factory for over a decade. During the autopsy, Dr. Murray discovered asbestos fibers lodged in the man’s lung tissue, which was most likely what caused his premature demise.

Despite the overwhelming number of reputable studies supporting a causal relationship between asbestos exposure and a series of malignant and non-malignant diseases which continued to surface for the better part of the century, asbestos was formally recognized as a carcinogenic agent only in the 1970s. The reason why the involvement of U.S. public health agencies could not be possible for such a long time pertains to the relentless striving of major asbestos companies to conceal compromising information from both their employees and the general population, as well as to downplay the hazard of asbestos when left with no other choice. Nevertheless, starting with 1971, asbestos has been classified as a known human carcinogen by multiple U.S. federal agencies and global health organizations, including:

While asbestos is most frequently associated with mesothelioma and lung cancer, these are far from being the only malignant diseases exposure can cause. It is important to keep in mind that a connection between asbestos exposure and most cancers which are to be further discussed has not been officially confirmed yet. However, there is already a lot of well-grounded information available in this respect and researchers are incessantly conducting studies to explain how exactly asbestos exposure leads to the development of various forms of cancer. The following malignant diseases may also stem from asbestos exposure, particularly from that which occurred in occupational settings over long periods of time.

Cancer of the esophagus, the hollow tube through which liquids and food pass to reach the stomach, is 4 times more common in men than in women. The primary cause of esophageal cancer is frequent alcohol or tobacco use. It accounts for approximately 1% of all diagnosed cancer cases in the United States. Nearly 17,000 people are expected to develop esophageal cancer by the end of 2017. Even though a connection between asbestos exposure and this disease has been revealed by numerous studies, the overall results are mixed. Nevertheless, research suggests that the risk of developing esophageal cancer is 2-4 times higher for people with a history of asbestos exposure.

The ingestion of asbestos fibers may result in cancer of the esophagus within several decades. Because asbestos fibers have a rough texture, they can easily attach themselves to the lining of the esophagus, producing inflammation and scarring over time. Due to the serious damage asbestos fibers can inflict on cellular structure, malignant tumors may develop at some point on the inner lining of the esophagus. There are two types of esophageal cancer:

  • squamous cell carcinoma, which affects the thin, flat layer of cells in the esophagus and represents nearly 90% of all cases
  • adenocarcinoma, which develops in the tissue of the lower esophageal segment, usually as a result of reoccurring stomach reflux

Whether it occurs by reason of asbestos exposure or another factor, the most common symptoms of esophageal cancer are:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • food regurgitation
  • chest pain or pressure
  • vomiting
  • heartburn
  • coughing up blood
  • anemia
  • unexplained weight loss
  • fatigue
  • a lingering cough
  • hoarseness

The International Agency for Research on Cancer recognizes a causal relationship between asbestos exposure and laryngeal cancer, deeming the existent evidence in this respect sufficient. Moreover, the results of a 2006 study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health actually confirm it. According to this research, the chances of developing cancer of the larynx increase with the amount of asbestos someone inhales. The laryngeal cancer risk of a person who was exposed to asbestos is 40% higher than that of one with no history of exposure. To make matters worse, people with a history of heavy asbestos exposure were found to have a risk up to 157% higher.

Asbestos fibers which reach the larynx will subsequently become embedded in its lining, where they will cause increasingly severe inflammation and, eventually, cancer. There are multiple means by which fibers can reach the larynx, such as inhalation. However, studies have shown that asbestos fibers can also attach themselves to the laryngeal tissue when a person coughs up asbestos-containing sputum from their lungs. It is worthy of note that excessive tobacco smoking and alcohol consumption have been found to increase the risk of developing laryngeal cancer when there is a history of asbestos exposure by causing addition damage and irritation to tissue.

The symptoms people suffering from this cancer experience most often include:

  • hoarseness
  • difficulty swallowing
  • ear pain
  • a chronic sore throat
  • unintentional weight loss
  • a lump in the neck
  • pain when swallowing
  • wheezing
  • a persisting cough

As one of the leading causes of cancer death in the United States, colorectal cancer will have claimed the lives of over 50,000 people by the end of 2017. Even though the exact culprit behind this malignant disease has not been discovered yet, medical researchers were able to pinpoint a series of factors which might increase the risk, such as inherited and acquired gene mutations, inflammatory intestinal conditions, diabetes, a diet low in fibers and high in fat, tobacco smoking, as well as obesity. Considering how widespread colorectal cancer has become, it is perhaps not surprising that the lifetime risk of developing it is 1 in 21 for men and 1 in 23 for women.

The results of studies focusing on the link between asbestos exposure and colorectal cancer are rather mixed. Nonetheless, in 1986, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration included colorectal cancer in the list of diseases physicians should look out for when screening people with a history of asbestos exposure. A study conducted on asbestos cement workers found that the chances of developing colorectal cancer became greater with the amount of asbestos they were inhaling on the job. Interestingly enough, the risk for colorectal cancer was revealed to be approximately the same as the risk for lung cancer and mesothelioma.

After ingestion, asbestos fibers reach the colon or the rectum by passing through the upper gastrointestinal tract. Once they attach themselves to tissue, cancer develops in a similar manner – the severe inflammation which affects the colon or the rectum over the years eventually gives way to a malignant tumor. The most common symptoms of colorectal cancer are the following:

  • cramping or abdominal pain
  • a change in bowel movement, such as diarrhea or constipation
  • blood in the stool
  • unexplained weight loss
  • fatigue
  • constantly feeling that you need to have a bowel movement
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and/or vomiting

The term gastrointestinal cancer refers to a group of malignant diseases which affect the digestive system. In addition to esophageal and colorectal cancer, whose correlation with asbestos exposure was previously discussed, gastrointestinal cancer includes the following diseases:

  • stomach cancer
  • liver cancer
  • pancreatic cancer
  • small intestine cancer
  • gallbladder cancer

Every year, there are over 250,000 new gastrointestinal cancer cases in the U.S. Since it pertains to multiple diseases, gastrointestinal cancer has a very wide range of causes, from infection with the H. pylori bacteria or the Epstein-Barr virus to excessive tobacco smoking or alcohol consumption. Asbestos exposure is also among the risk factors. The connection between asbestos exposure and gastrointestinal cancer is actually recognized by the World Health Organization and there are numerous reliable studies supporting it.

Unlike pulmonary cancers, which result from the inhalation of asbestos fibers, gastrointestinal cancer stems from long-term ingestion. It is often drinking asbestos-contaminated water which leads to the development of a tumor within the gastrointestinal tract, although people who underwent exposure in the workplace are at high risk, too. A 2005 study, whose participants were Norwegian lighthouse keepers, found that the stomach cancer risk of those who had been consuming asbestos-contaminated water was up to 450% higher than that of the control group.

The symptoms of gastrointestinal cancer can vary considerably, depending on which portion of the digestive tract it occurs on. However, some signs which may indicate the presence of one of these malignant diseases are:

  • abdominal discomfort or pain
  • indigestion
  • feeling full after ingesting small amounts of food
  • heartburn
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • swelling of the abdomen
  • unexplained weight loss
  • anemia
  • loss of appetite

At the moment, kidney cancer is among the ten most frequently diagnosed forms of cancer in the United States, with a 1 in 63 lifetime risk of developing it for both men and women. While there are multiple types of kidney cancer, renal cell carcinoma is by far the most common, accounting for 85% of all cases. It is also the one associated with asbestos exposure. Although the overall results of medical research concerning the link between asbestos exposure and kidney cancer are mixed, there are a series of studies indicating a strong correlation. The first study during which asbestos fibers were found in kidney tissue and urine took place in 1979.

In 1989, another study was conducted on three occupational groups so as to discover a potential causal relationship between workplace asbestos exposure and kidney cancer. The participants belonged to the following occupational groups:

  • U.S. insulators
  • Italian shipyard workers
  • U.S. asbestos products company workers

The rate of mortality among Italian shipyard workers from “cancers of the kidney, urinary bladder, and other urinary organs” was particularly high. Upon completion, researchers stated that asbestos is a probable cause of kidney cancer.

Asbestos fibers can reach the kidneys either after one ingests contaminated water or by travelling through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system following inhalation. If you suffer from kidney cancer, you may experience some of the following symptoms:

  • lower back pain
  • blood in urine
  • persistent fever whose underlying cause is not an infection
  • a lump on the side or lower back
  • fatigue
  • hypertension
  • unintentional weight loss
  • anemia
  • loss of appetite

According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 80,000 people in the U.S. will have received a bladder cancer diagnosis by the end of 2017. The risk factors for this disease include tobacco smoking, certain diabetes medicine and dietary supplements, inherited and acquired gene mutations, as well as exposure to carcinogenic agents such as arsenic and asbestos. Even though additional research is necessary to confirm the link between asbestos exposure and bladder cancer, several reputable studies are already providing solid evidence in this regard. A 2012 study revealed that asbestos fibers which fail to attach themselves to tissue inside the body are eliminated via the urinary system, which makes the occurrence of bladder cancer possible.

Nonetheless, asbestos fibers can also reach the urinary system after a person drinks contaminated water or by infiltrating the bloodstream through the gastrointestinal wall. Once they are in the bladder, cancer develops in a similar fashion – asbestos fibers irritate the lining of the organ, which gradually leads to severe inflammation and tissue scarring. If significant cell damage occurs, malignant tumors will grow on the inner walls of the bladder. The most frequent symptoms of bladder cancer, whether it ensues as a consequence of asbestos exposure or another factor, include:

  • painful urination
  • frequent need to urinate
  • blood or blood clots in the urine
  • recurring urinary tract infections
  • lower back pain
  • pelvic pain

As the most aggressive malignant disease affecting the female reproductive system, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among women. Every year, approximately 15,000 women in the U.S. lose their life to ovarian cancer, whereas the lifetime risk of receiving a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is 1 in 75. The correlation between asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer is also recognized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Unlike the previous diseases, ovarian cancer does not occur following direct asbestos exposure – it is the frequent use of asbestos-contaminated talcum powder on the genital area which causes it.

There are multiple studies with conclusive results when it comes to a causal relationship between asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer, some of which date back to the early 1980s. Because talc occurs in close proximity to asbestos deposits in the earth, mainly to tremolite and anthophyllite, contamination is inevitable. Since the refining process is unable to remove the entire amount of asbestos from talc, the final product – talcum powder – will also contain carcinogenic particles. By applying talcum powder on a regular basis, it is more likely for some of it to reach the ovaries, where the microscopic asbestos fibers may gradually trigger the onset of cancer.

In a 1999 study, 45 out of the 100 women suffering from ovarian cancer reported having applied talcum powder on their genital area prior to developing the disease. Cumulative data indicates that the risk of ovarian cancer is 24% higher for women who use talcum powder. The most common symptoms of this disease are the following:

  • abdominal bloating
  • feeling full after eating small amounts
  • indigestion
  • frequent or urgent need to urinate
  • nausea
  • changes in bowel movement
  • pressure in the lower back
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • menstrual irregularities

If you have a history of asbestos exposure and believe that you might be suffering from a related form of cancer, it is vital to seek medical attention as soon as possible. The progress of malignant diseases stemming from asbestos exposure is very rapid and timely diagnosis is thereby extremely important. As cancer advances, it becomes less and less responsive to treatment, so we strongly encourage you to visit a specialist immediately if you experience some of the symptoms above. Please feel free to contact us at 760-208-4196 or by using the form on our Contact page and we will gladly recommend you a medical expert in your area.