Straight Talk about Mesothelioma, a blog series created by Michael T. Milano, M.D., Ph.D., a radiation oncology specialist, as a resource for mesothelioma patients and their loved ones.


It may come as a surprise, but asbestos has been mined by humans for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence documents its use by a number of ancient civilizations, including Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Persia. Thus, the ancients also likely suffered from asbestos’ highly carcinogenic properties. So why wasn’t it until the 20th century that we were able to confirm how toxic asbestos really is? And, if human civilization and technology have evolved in so many countless ways, how is it that we haven’t more greatly evolved in our understanding and avoidance of asbestos?

The short answer is that asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis have a long-latency – meaning symptoms may not emerge until decades after exposure. Given the primitive nature of medicine before the 20th century, it would have been all but impossible to definitively trace these diseases back to an incident of asbestos exposure.

So the better question: Now that asbestos is widely understood to be a deadly substance, why is it still legally produced and distributed in the United States?

A Tragically Preventable Blight on the Medical Community

Mesothelioma, which is the most lethal manifestation of asbestos exposure, is a highly aggressive type of cancer. Thousands of working-class Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year, and among them only 5-10 percent will survive another 5 years. Patient outcomes after early detection is still pretty discouraging, with Stage I patients surviving an average of just 21 months.

All types of mesothelioma are malignant, but the variety of forms of the disease makes it more difficult to diagnose and treat. For example, roughly 20 to 35 percent of cases are classified as “biphasic mesothelioma,” which refers to the type of cancer cells (specifically, a cross between epithelioid and sarcomatoid). While certain treatment options are better for this type of mesothelioma, other factors such as the location of the tumors are more important. Most cases of mesothelioma are “pleural” in origin, meaning the cancer is located in the soft tissue surrounding the lungs. Mesothelioma can also develop in the lining of the abdomen, known as “peritoneal mesothelioma.”

Regardless of where the mesothelioma is or what cell type it is, mesothelioma is a horrific illness made worse by its complexity. Even more frustrating is that it is almost entirely preventable: Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma, mainly affecting those in the U.S. military and the construction industry. Most of these workers lack the legal or financial means to properly deal with such a situation, leaving them helpless to protect themselves and their families. It stands to follow, then, that asbestos should be completely banned from industrial use, and that standards should be enacted to safely encapsulate it (meaning to make it completely inaccessible) or rid our institutions of its presence.

But, for a variety of political reasons, these changes will not happen any time soon. Some states have taken a proactive measure in banning asbestos at the local level, but the substance remains in use nationwide, with U.S. industry importing more than 1,000 metric tons of the stuff each year. Manufacturers rely on the toxic mineral for building materials, home insulation, automobile brakes, and chemical products.

No Safe Level to the Silent Killer

Several government organizations maintain that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Private health experts agree. Richard Lemen, a professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and retired assistant U.S. surgeon general, recently told the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) that “Americans are still at risk of developing highly preventable asbestos-related disease.”

While those in the construction industry may face the greatest risk of asbestos exposure, they are not the only victims. Other professionals that have suffered mesothelioma deaths in recent years include plumbers, contract workers, electricians, janitors, welders, cleaners – even teachers and students.

Recently, a student at Harvard University may have been exposed to asbestos after a chunk of asbestos-containing plaster fell down inside of his closet.

Clearly, the curse of asbestos is far from removed. The medical community will have to continue to fight this poisonous mineral.