Mesothelioma: The environmental cancer that strikes on the job

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Mesothelioma: The environmental cancer that strikes on the job

By Katie Charles

Wednesday, October 20th 2010, 4:00 AM

As a professor and chief of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, Raja Flores operates on cancers of the chest, mostly lung and esophageal cancer. Over the past 15 years, he has specialized in mesothelioma and sees more than 50 cases annually.

Who’s at risk

Mesothelioma is a relatively rare cancer that affects about 3,000 Americans a year. “Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lung,” says Flores. “It starts in one spot, creeps throughout the chest and can give a slow, painful death.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, the incidence of mesothelioma has increased during the past 20 years. Environmental exposures account for the vast majority of patients.

“Asbestos exposure is the No. 1 risk factor,” says Flores. “That refers to naturally occurring minerals present in many industrial products, like cement, textiles and insulation.”

Asbestos can become dangerous when inhaled or swallowed, often during manufacturing. Most sufferers of the disease had exposure to asbestos on the job, where it is a risk for workers like insulators, rescue teams (such as after 9/11) and shipyard crews.

One challenge in fighting mesothelioma is that asbestos exposure is often silent and invisible. “Many people don’t even know they’ve been exposed,” says Flores. “There can be a 20- to 30-year latency, so it’s years after they’re exposed that they see symptoms.”

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