September 26th marks the 17th anniversary of Mesothelioma Awareness Day.

While some people have heard about mesothelioma, many don't know is that it is a form of cancer linked to exposure to asbestos. There are about 3,000 new cases diagnosed each year, but fact is that this disease can be completely avoided and even disappear altogether if we are diligent about the dangers of asbestos.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral made of needle-like microscopic fibers. Thanks to its tensile strength, heat resistance, and sound absorption properties, it became a common additive in a variety of industries.

Asbestos-containing materials were prevalent in the construction industry. They include a range of products from flooring tiles to insulation.

The heyday of asbestos usage was between the 1920s and 1980s and plenty of it can still be found in older homes. Unfortunately, that asbestos isn't benign. It can degrade over time and when it does, it can release fibers into the air. These airborne fibers can be inhaled or ingested by people living in these homes.

These days, the most common cause of exposure is working on homes that contain these materials. DIY home renovations, demolition, or improper removal of asbestos all dramatically increase the risk of inhalation.

The Dangers of Asbestos Exposure

But what exactly are the risks associated with this exposure?

When asbestos fibers enter our bodies, they can cling to the lining of internal organs, such as the lungs, heart, and abdomen. The fibers agitate these organ linings, leading to scarring and, eventually, the development of tumors. Tumors in the organ linings are typically a telltale sign of mesothelioma. However, a tissue biopsy needs to be performed in order to confirm that they are cancerous.

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. While you are more likely to develop mesothelioma if you have consistent contact with asbestos, just one exposure can be life threatening.

Symptoms of mesothelioma also take 10 to 50 years to occur, which makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly when you may have been exposed to asbestos.

Treatment options for this disease are limited as well. The life expectancy for someone with mesothelioma is 12 to 21 months after diagnosis. Many treatment options focus on improving the patient’s quality of life. For example, a procedure known as a pleurocentesis is a treatment that helps remove fluid buildup within the lungs in order to relieve chest pain and help patients breathe more easily.

(Find out How to Reduce the Risk of Occupational Cancer.)

Staying Safe From Asbestos

It is vital that homeowners, contractors, construction workers, and safety professionals know the many places where asbestos can hide in homes and buildings. Old roof tiles, floor tiles, insulation, popcorn ceilings, and permaboard are just some of the many materials that incorporated this carcinogen.

While it is recommended that only abatement professionals handle asbestos, anyone dealing with materials that may contain asbestos should wear personal protective equipment in order to limit exposure. This includes eyeglasses, disposable clothing, and a respirator with HEPA-filter cartridges.

You should never try to remove asbestos-containing materials by yourself. If you plan on renovating your home or are in a profession that requires you to handle materials that may contain asbestos, you should have the suspected materials tested before proceeding. Blindly ripping out insulation or tearing down walls can be extremely hazardous to one’s health and can spread fibers to surrounding areas of the structure. If materials test positive for asbestos, abatement professionals should be contacted immediately to assess if they should be removed or repaired.

Help Spread Awareness

On Mesothelioma Awareness Day help spread awareness by informing loved ones about the dangers of asbestos.

If you know someone who might potentially be exposed, tell them about the risks. If their profession might bring them in contact with asbestos-containing materials, make sure they're holding their employer responsible for ensuring safe working conditions.

If we continue spread the word about the dangers of asbestos and how to avoid exposure, mesothelioma can finally become a disease of the past.