Asbestos-related occupational diseases are still a threat to workers
At this point, the dangers of asbestos exposure are widely known. Nevertheless, asbestos exposure remains a threat for workers around Canada. Just this year, a series of firms in B.C. were fined $20,000 each for asbestos-related violations.
As our writer Glyn Jones wrote in his recent column, “neither asbestos nor mould are new hazards, but they are both often overlooked leading to unnecessary exposure.”
Furthermore, in 2019 WorkSafe Saskatchewan reported that asbestos-related diseases remain the leading cause of work-related deaths in the province, and account for 42 per cent of all work-related deaths according to 2018 WCB numbers.
Who is at risk?
Every year, an estimated 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos while working. Some industries carry more risk of asbestos exposure than others, including building construction and demolition, manufacturing, carpentry, etc.
Asbestos has not been mined in Canada since 2012. Though the Canadian government finally prohibited asbestos and products containing asbestos in October 2018, asbestos nevertheless still is present in many public buildings, workplaces and even homes. Asbestos was initially used as an additive in building products and materials due to its multitude of qualities, including heat resistance.
Asbestos is banned entirely in around 39 countries.
One complicating factor of asbestos-related diseases, and indeed many occupational diseases, is that they are often diagnosed years after exposure. The Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) says that asbestos fibres are easily inhaled into the lungs, thus leading to diseases that can affect respiratory function, lung cancers and mesothelioma.
So, what exactly is mesothelioma?
“Mesothelioma is commonly considered an occupational disease occurring as a result of asbestos exposure in the workplace,” says a source in the field.
This source tells us that “when asbestos containing materials are disturbed, such as during demolition or renovation to a building, asbestos fibers are released into the air. This leaves individuals vulnerable to inhaling or ingesting the fibers, which can develop into mesothelioma and other serious health diseases.”
They add that “once in the body, asbestos fibers become lodged in the lining of organs, creating inflammation and scarring which eventually develops into tumors.”
Asbestos is widely considered to be the only known cause of mesothelioma.
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In Canada, statistics show that there are around 1,900 lung cancers and 430 mesothelioma cases each year which can be tied to asbestos exposure. This, our source says, is based on past exposures from 1962 to 2001. These numbers amount to 8 per cent of all lung cancers and a whopping 81 per cent of all mesotheliomas diagnosed every year (as stated before, asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, thus the remaining percentage are likely due to environmental asbestos exposure).
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are around 43,000 mesothelioma deaths per year. This is an issue affecting workers worldwide, not just in Canada.
What are the symptoms, and what treatment is available?
What are the signs and symptoms of mesothelioma? Our source in the field says that “mesothelioma is a cancer caused by asbestos where tumors develop into the crucial lining of organs, most commonly the lungs and abdomen.”
Symptoms of the disease can include: abdominal pain, chest pain, coughing or wheezing, difficulty breathing, fatigue and muscle weakness, fever and night sweats, and loss of appetite.
According to the Mayo Clinic, mesothelioma is an aggressive and deadly cancer. Though treatments are available, life expectancy for those in the early stages of the disease (stage 1 or 2) have a life expectancy of around 19 – 21 months. For those is later stages (stage 3 or 4), that is reduced to around 12 – 16 months. This is an average and can vary on the type of mesothelioma the patient has.
Around 55 per cent of mesothelioma patients live longer than six months, with 9 per cent of patients living longer than five years.
Mesothelioma which affects the tissue around the lungs is called “pleural mesothelioma”. Mesothelioma which affects the tissue in the abdomen is called “peritoneal mesothelioma”. An extremely rare form of mesothelioma which affects the membrane that lines the heart is called “pericardial mesothelioma”.
“Early signs of mesothelioma are particularly difficult to detect, as they are mild. Individuals typically ignore symptoms or attribute them to more common conditions such as the flu or pneumonia,” Says our source in the field. “Studies have shown early warning signs of chest or abdominal pain and fluid buildup.”
It is also hard to tell because mesothelioma, as with most asbestos-related diseases, develops over time. It can take 40 years for the disease to develop.
Is there a treatment for mesothelioma? Our source says: “Treatment for mesothelioma can include radiation, chemotherapy, surgery and multimodal therapy, which is a combination of two or more cancer treatments. Clinical trials also continue to test emerging treatments such as immunotherapy, gene therapy, and photodynamic therapy.”
The best treatment is prevention. To ensure that workers are safe, employers need to make sure that workers are not being exposed to levels of asbestos which will bring about occupational diseases, including mesothelioma.