compliments of Heather Von St. James
When she was in elementary school, Heather Von St. James would head out to feed and play with the family’s rabbits, kept in a hutch in her father’s garage workshop. In the frequently chilly air of the Black Hills of South Dakota, she’d slip into her dad’s warm work coat before heading out. The coat swallowed her up at 7 and 8 years old, but it was conveniently hanging on the door in the entryway for her to grab if she went out to check the mail or grab the newspaper.
It wasn’t until nearly three decades later, after Heather had had her own child, that the consequences of wearing her dad’s work coat came to fruition: just three months after giving birth to her daughter, Heather was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as mesothelioma. Unknown to her and her dad, his work in construction, working with drywall and concrete materials, regularly exposed him to asbestos.
His coat was filled with tiny fibers that made their way into Heather’s lungs and eventually developed into a form of cancer almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. Heather underwent chemotherapy and surgery, but she lost her left lung—and, eventually, her father. He died in 2014 from renal carcinoma, a different cancer also linked to asbestos exposure.
Asbestos refers to six types of minerals made from tiny, lightweight but strong fireproof fibers. That makes them tremendously useful for thousands of products—except that they kill. At least 80% of people diagnosed with mesothelioma have had confirmed exposure to asbestos. Others likely had exposure without realizing it since it can take decades, even up to 50 or 70 years, before mesothelioma develops in the thin lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen and heart.
Heather was fortunate—she passed the 10-year survival mark just over a year ago—but about half of patients die within a year after malignant mesothelioma diagnosis. And inexplicably, those deaths are increasing, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month. Deaths from mesothelioma were expected to begin decreasing after 2005, but instead, they slightly ticked up from 2,479 deaths in 1999 to 2,597 deaths in 2015.
Many of the deaths occurred among people at least 85 years old, which makes sense given how widespread asbestos was, particularly before the 1980s, and how long the disease takes to develop. The material was commonly used in a range of industries, such as construction, manufacturing, mining, milling and shipbuilding, but it was also found in many other products, including household goods.
Asbestos was banned from use in insulation products in the 1970s, but it remains in many old buildings. Today, the Toxic Substances Control Act bans asbestos in various paper and flooring products, as well as any newly developed products that have no history of asbestos in their manufacturing.
Still, it’s not completely banned, despite calls from public health researchers to do so, perhaps explaining why deaths continue among individuals under 55 years old, the CDC researchers reported.
“Although most deaths from malignant mesothelioma in the United States are the result of exposures to asbestos 20–40 years prior, new cases might result from occupational exposure to asbestos fibers during maintenance activities, demolition and remediation of existing asbestos in structures, installations and buildings if controls are insufficient to protect workers,” the researchers wrote.
The CDC report notes that one in five air samples collected in the construction industry in 2003 exceeded the limits allowed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). And if workers are unprotected, they could be bringing asbestos fibers home just as Heather’s dad did, leaving family members of workers at risk for asbestos exposure as well.
More than a dozen products, from cement products to clothing to car parts, are still manufactured with asbestos. The U.S. isn’t alone in continuing to allow its use. According to a study a few years ago, just 44 out of 143 countries that used asbestos in the 2000s have since banned its use.
The Environmental Protection Agency lists the many places asbestos might be found, including roofing and shingles products, vinyl flooring products, pipes, oil and coal furnaces, certain types of paint, heat-resistant fabrics and car parts exposed to friction, such as brakes. The symptoms of mesothelioma can resemble the early symptoms of many other illnesses, such as fatigue and fever, but they also include difficulty breathing, muscle weakness and chest pain. More information about asbestos can be found at the EPA and National Cancer Institute and more information on mesothelioma can be found at the American Cancer Society.