On September 21, a Fresno, California-area newspaper reported the exposure of about 90 city employees to asbestos as a result of construction crews installing fire suppression equipment in two computer rooms next to the police department's communications, or dispatch, center.
Asbestos exposure can lead to a number of diseases. The first is asbestosis, a respiratory disease similar to asthma commonly acquired after long exposure to asbestos, either in mining, manufacturing (of asbestos-containing products), or installation of said products, as with automobile brake mechanics.
Fortunately, in 1989 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limited the use of asbestos in domestic products to one percent or less by a volume. The limit does not imply to imported products, which can contain unregulated levels.
Another asbestos-induced disease is pleural mesothelioma. One of three types of cancer of the mesothelial lining, pleural mesothelioma is by far the most common, closely followed by peritoneal mesothelioma (abdominal) and pericardial mesothelioma (heart).
Not only is pleural mesothelioma common, and caused primarily by asbestos, but - unlike asbestosis - it requires only a single exposure to trigger the disease. Once exposed, victims are not likely to exhibit many symptoms for several decades, or up to 50 years in some cases, and what few symptoms they do exhibit can easily be mistaken for allergic reactions, compromised immune systems, or persistent pneumonias.
At the end of this long dormancy period, symptoms can become quite pronounced, and diagnosis is usually made by a simple X-ray. Unfortunately, by that time, the tumor has invaded so many tissues, and even vital organs, that little can be done to halt the cancer. Many patients diagnosed with long-standing pleural mesothelioma are given about a year to live, though some cases, caught early enough, respond moderately well to aggressive therapies involving surgery and/or multiple regimens of chemotherapy.
Only recently have tests become available that can diagnose pleural mesothelioma early, and the most technologically sophisticated of these relies on testing the soluble mesothelin-related protein content of pleural effusions, or fluid accumulations in the pleural cavity.
The 90 workers in Fresno's police department, all of whom were in the area at various times, have been notified via voice mail and other means that their exposure may have left them open to developing mesothelioma in the future. Fortunately, the risk was mitigated due to the fact that the rooms in which the work was conducted have their own separate air system, so only those entering the rooms have been directly exposed, though these individuals might have carried asbestos fibers into other rooms on clothing.
In the interim, the dispatch center has been relocated elsewhere, and city officials have ordered air-quality sampling of the dispatch center and equipment rooms to determine if asbestos particles became airborne.
Asbestos, when sealed, sequestered or undisturbed, is not dangerous. When it becomes airborne, it can be inhaled or ingested, leading to lesions in the lungs and/or digestive tract that can develop into various forms of mesothelioma.
City officials knew the area contained asbestos, but did not consider it a danger because it had been sealed off. The fire suppression installation had been going on for over a week before someone noticed that asbestos-containing materials had been disturbed. Employees who may have been exposed have been informed that they can see their own medical provider and file a claim with the city against the future development of asbestos-related diseases.
The legacy costs of mesothelioma can't even be calculated, but in the U.S. alone, $40 billion sits in various trusts to pay those costs. Unfortunately, only about 30 percent of that actually makes it way to those suffering from mesothelioma, according to non-profit global think tank RAND Corporation.
Asbestos was widely used in hundreds of construction, automotive and household products during most of the last century, leading to the aforementioned legacy costs. According to a Yale School of Organization and Management study conducted in 1992, this widespread use of asbestos will lead to 200,000 asbestos-related deaths over the next 25 years, at a cost to manufacturers and their insurers of at least $50 billion dollars.