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You might think that cases of malignant mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos exposure, would be decreasing because of several decades of regulations banning or limiting the use of asbestos. However, a recently released analysis done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has discovered that people, the majority of them men, are still dying from malignant mesothelioma by the thousands. Despite regulations and worker protections, 45,221 persons died of mesothelioma between 1999 and 2015. Notably, in 1999, mesothelioma caused 2,497 deaths, but in 2015, 100 more people—2,597—died from the disease. Why?

What is Malignant Mesothelioma, and What is Asbestos?

Mesothelioma, also referred to as malignant mesothelioma, is a deadly and rare cancer that is both highly aggressive and resistant to many current treatments. It is mostly caused by exposure to different forms of asbestos. The most common form of malignant mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma, which begins in the chest cavity. It then metastasizes to many organs, including the lungs and brain. About three in four mesotheliomas are pleural.

Asbestos can be any one of six fibrous materials that occur naturally and are mined. The most common ones are chrysotile and amosite asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos is the variety that was used most often in U.S. buildings and in shipbuilding; about 90 to 95 percent of all asbestos that is still inside buildings is chrysotile. This form of asbestos was especially prized for its fire-resistant qualities; therefore, in any situation where fire was an enormous hazard—such as on ships, in schools, and in power plants—it was used. Until the health hazards were discovered, asbestos seemed like a near-miracle.

What Causes Malignant Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma, along with lung cancer, asbestosis and certain other respiratory illnesses, has been linked to asbestos exposure. Usually it’s caused by breathing air contaminated with microscopic asbestos fibers, often in workplaces where asbestos was manufactured or used as building material. The tiny asbestos fibers become lodged in the lungs, creating decades of irritation that eventually cause disease.

Almost all mesotheliomas are workplace-related. It is easy to assume that workers are protected, but that’s not always the case. In South Carolina between 1999 and 2013, asbestos exposure caused more than 600 deaths. Of those deaths, 470 were from mesothelioma. The three counties in SC with the highest asbestos-related mortality rates are Charleston County, Spartanburg County, and Berkeley County.

Certain fields of work were more likely to use asbestos and therefore have employed workers who developed mesothelioma. The shipbuilding industry was one; in South Carolina it was centered mostly in the Charleston area. Navy veterans can be vulnerable to the disease as well because of the Charleston Naval Shipyard. Anyone who works with or around ships may still be at risk.

The building of power plants also exposed a lot of workers to asbestos and the risk of mesothelioma. Many times the asbestos was applied in spray form. In addition, gaskets used to seal valves, pumps, and pipe fittings were also made from materials that contained asbestos. Often the gaskets needed to be cut and filed to get a proper fit, creating a dust that the workers would inhale. Today’s workers at power plants need to be wary when doing their job in older areas of plants, especially if they are repairing something electrical.

According to the recent CDC study, the five occupations with the highest mortality ratios were:

  • Insulation workers
  • Chemical technicians
  • Pipe layers, plumbers, pipe fitters, and steamfitters
  • Chemical engineers
  • Sheet metal workers.

So What’s Happening with the Death Rate?

While the chart that follows indicates that the death rate increases dramatically with age, it is not simply because people have grown older. Part of the reason is that mesothelioma can take from 20 to even 70 years to develop after the initial exposure. Therefore, although the first regulations were created almost 45 years ago, we are still in the window of disease development from those early exposures because of mesothelioma’s long timeline.

Here’s another thing to notice: Death rates from mesothelioma are much lower for those under 65, and, of course, that’s good. But investigators think the fact that thousands of people under 65 are still dying from an asbestos-related disease means that dangerous levels of asbestos exposure continue to occur in certain workplaces—even though federal regulations have been in place for decades. It is believed that workers are being exposed to old installations of asbestos via building renovations or demolitions. Those involved in regular building maintenance or in asbestos remediation of older buildings are at great risk of dangerous exposure.

Such exposure is sometimes called the “third wave” of people with asbestos-related diseases. The first wave of mesothelioma cases was composed of miners and manufacturers, while the second wave was composed of workers such as shipbuilders and pipe fitters.

Malignant mesothelioma deaths by age group and age-adjusted death rates in the U.S. from 1999 through 2015

Age Group Number of Deaths Death Rate per Million Persons
25-34 138 0.20
35-44 544 0.75
45-54 1,936 2.69
55-64 6,237 11.22
65-74 12,985 36.31
75-84 16,914 76.28
≥85 6,467 74.46

Source: “Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality — United States, 1999–2015” in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), March 3, 2017.

What Are the Symptoms of Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma can resemble a flu that just won’t go away. Depending on where the cancer is located, the symptoms will be slightly different. The primary symptoms, which can present themselves decades after exposure to asbestos, include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent cough
  • Pain under the rib cage
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Fluid or swelling in the abdomen
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Chest pain
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Excessive sweating.

Unfortunately, it is often not easy or simple to diagnose malignant mesothelioma, largely because symptoms can be mistaken for other diseases and because it often shows up decades after the initial exposure. Mesothelioma can be confused with a different type of cancer or with a less-serious illness.

Patients are faced with months of grueling medical treatments, an overwhelming financial burden, and the sad reality of fairly rapid demise. Currently there is no known cure for mesothelioma, and the median survival time after diagnosis varies from 12 to 21 months, depending on the stage of the cancer (I, II, III, or IV). The primary treatments available include radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy, although none of these have proven effective at eradicating the cancer.

What Can I Expect if I Have a Case?

If you believe that your mesothelioma was caused by asbestos in the workplace, it is important that you secure legal assistance as soon as possible. The legal process can be lengthy, taking months or even years, as the defendant will likely try to drag things out. If you are in poor health, however, sometimes the process can be expedited. Travel on the part of the plaintiff is usually, mercifully, limited. If the plaintiff in a mesothelioma case dies before the case is resolved, loved ones may be able to take over. In some cases, they can file wrongful death suits.

Most cases are settled before they go to trial, but several stages in the process must be passed through before you reach the settlement stage. Therefore, time is of the essence.

When life goes wrong, we fight for what’s right.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis, you may be entitled to financial compensation for past and future medical bills, lost wages, physical disability, and emotional pain and suffering. If you are considering an asbestos-related lawsuit, it is important to talk with an attorney with significant experience in South Carolina workplace injury law. The Louthian Firm Accident & Injury Lawyers has been trying — and winning — lawsuits in South Carolina since 1959. We’re committed to providing excellent, personalized service and the best results for our clients. To speak with an experienced mesothelioma attorney today, call us at 803-592-6231, or fill out our confidential online form for a free personal injury consultation.

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