Mesothelioma, an incurable, aggressive cancer of the lining of the lungs and abdomen associated with asbestos exposure, continues to perplex researchers and physicians. Although the disease primarily affects men over the age of 65, the federal government reports that the number of mesothelioma deaths among younger adults in the U.S. in recent years is of concern.
In its report “Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality — United States, 1999–2015,” published March 3, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that despite a decline in asbestos exposure due to regulatory actions and the decline in the use of asbestos, the number of mesothelioma deaths each year is still rising. Over the 16 years covered in the report, there were 45,221 deaths from mesothelioma. In 1999 there were 2,479 deaths and in 2015, the last year of data, the number increased to 2,597.
More alarming is that 682 Americans between the ages of 25 and 44 died of mesothelioma in that time period. In adults aged 25-34 there were 138 deaths, and 544 deaths in adults aged 35-44.
“Although deaths among persons aged less than 35 years are of concern, we do not have information to understand potential causes,” said Dr. Jacek Mazurek, lead author of the CDC report, in a March 6 CNN article.
According to the CDC, while occupational exposure to asbestos fibers most often occurs in industrial operations, including mining and milling, manufacturing, shipbuilding and repair, and construction, exposures to commercial asbestos now occurs predominantly during renovations and remediation in older buildings containing asbestos. Because these jobs are primarily performed by men, they are more likely to be at risk for asbestos-related diseases.
Family members of workers engaged in activities placing them at risk for asbestos exposures also have the potential for exposure to asbestos, according to the CDC. This type of exposure is referred to as second-hand exposure and is found often in spouses and children of the workers.
Expert InsightDespite regulatory actions and decline in asbestos use, the annual number of malignant mesothelioma deaths remains substantial.
Asbestos is a known carcinogen and is proven to cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other respiratory diseases. Often called “asbestos cancer,” mesothelioma is highly aggressive and is resistant to many cancer treatments. There is no known cure for the disease, and, the CDC notes, patients have a median survival of approximately one year from the time of their diagnosis.
Following are some of the statistics the CDC reports:
- 16,914, or 37.4%, of the deaths were among persons aged 75–84 years.
- 36,093, or 79.8%, of the deaths were males.
- 35,068, or 77.5%, of the deaths had no indication of the type of mesothelioma the patients suffered.
- 3,351, or 7.4%, of the deaths were designated as pleural mesothelioma (of the lungs). Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of the cancer, comprising over 75% of the known cases.
- 1,854, or 4.1%, were designated as peritoneal mesothelioma (of the abdomen). Peritoneal mesothelioma cases are estimated at around 10% of all cases.
- 74, or 0.2%, of the deaths were designated as pericardial mesothelioma (of the heart). This mesothelioma is extremely rare and comprises just one percent of the mesothelioma cases.
Symptoms of mesothelioma often take decades after the initial exposure to asbestos to develop, making it difficult for many patients to recall when they may have inhaled asbestos fibers. According to the report, the latency period from first exposure to malignant mesothelioma development typically ranges from 20 to 40 years, but can be as long as 71 years.
The tragedy of mesothelioma is that the disease is entirely preventable by eliminating exposure to asbestos. In its report the CDC notes:
“Contrary to past projections, the number of malignant mesothelioma deaths has been increasing. The continuing occurrence of mesothelioma deaths, particularly among younger populations, underscores the need for maintaining efforts to prevent exposure and for ongoing surveillance to monitor temporal trends.”
“This disease remains relevant,” said Dr. Hedy Kindler, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and director of its mesothelioma program, in the CNN article, “and it remains a killer of people who, of no fault of their own other than doing their job, they were exposed to something that was preventable.”