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Mesothelioma is often considered an old man’s disease. While it’s true that a higher percentage of older men develop this rare and deadly cancer than other groups of people, there are many ways in which children and teenagers can be exposed to asbestos and develop mesothelioma at a young age.
Medical research has noted the development of mesothelioma in children since at least the 1960s, when asbestos was first scientifically linked to the disease. A study published in 1981 reviewed 42 cases of mesothelioma in children that had been reported over the previous 30 years. While the patients did not report any asbestos exposure, given the rampant use of asbestos in construction and everyday products throughout that time period, it’s likely those children were exposed without ever even knowing the danger they were in.
Tragically, once mesothelioma starts to develop in a child, he or she may be less likely to survive. Mesothelioma is always aggressive, but there is significant evidence that mesothelioma can develop more quickly in children and young teenagers than in older victims. A 1964 study in the medical journal Cancer noted “the sudden onset of symptoms, rapid development of pain, pleural effusion, and the relentless progression of the disease” in children who had mesothelioma. Another study in 1980 showed that the latency period for mesothelioma is often significantly shorter for children than for adults. Given the much smaller timeframe during which the disease grows extremely rapidly, it is often even harder than usual to detect and diagnose mesothelioma in children before it develops into a late stage.
Given that asbestos is the only scientifically proven cause of mesothelioma, the question of how children can be exposed to this toxic substance is an important one. Below we’ve provided a description of the four primary ways that children can be exposed to asbestos.
Natural Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos is a natural mineral that appears in large deposits all over the world. Sometimes it is found deep underground, but certain forms of the deadly substance can be found on the surface as well. Between 2005 and 2011 the United States Geological Survey (USGS) published a series of reports on the natural occurrence of asbestos throughout the United States, identifying at least 900 sites throughout the country, primarily on the eastern seaboard and in western states. Many of these sites contain asbestos deposits that are accessible right from the surface.
In fact, asbestos is so common in some places around the world that the mining towns which have sprung up around the deposits were named for the mineral. Two such examples are Asbestos, Quebec, in Canada and Asbest City in the Ural Mountains of Russia. Towns like these where mining occurs have, of course, seen an increased number of people who develop mesothelioma due to the mining activities. This population includes children, teenagers, and young adults who were exposed at an early age.
Secondhand Asbestos Exposure
One of the biggest dangers of asbestos is that it clings to clothing, making it easy to transfer from one place to another. As a result, secondhand exposure can occur without even realizing it. Family and friends who work in mines, factories, or shipyards where asbestos is used frequently can often bring asbestos home with them on their clothes, never realizing that they are exposing their loved ones to this dangerous substance.
This sort of exposure has even given a name to a particular demographic of mesothelioma patient, namely, women who develop the disease as young adults. Known as “Daughters of the Dust,” these women were exposed as children when their family members (most often fathers) would come home from their industrial jobs wearing clothes riddled with asbestos fibers. Some of these women who have survived the disease, such as Heather Von. St. James, have gone on to become vociferous advocates for banning the use of asbestos and providing support for mesothelioma research and treatment.
Asbestos at Home, School, and Elsewhere
Due to the ubiquitous use of asbestos as a construction material, the life-threatening mineral can be found in buildings in pretty much every city and town throughout the world. It has been used in paints, wall and ceiling textures, insulation, floor and roof tiles, caulking around windows and doors, plaster, cement, siding, and many other materials used to build homes, schools, and various public buildings.
Although there are laws regulating the use of asbestos in both new construction and renovated buildings – such as the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), which specifically addresses asbestos in schools – there are still many old buildings that have asbestos in them. In fact, many schools and universities still deal with asbestos exposure today, and it seems unlikely that the problem will go away any time soon.
Child Laborers in Developing Nations
In the U.S., the vast majority of children are exposed through the means above and do not have to worry about occupational exposure. However, in some third world countries and developing nations, the opposite is true. Due to the absence of an asbestos ban and lax laws and regulations prohibiting to child labor, in many countries children may actually work in factories, mines, or other places where industrial exposure to asbestos is an everyday occurrence.
According to a 2011 study published in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 96 percent of child laborers around the world can be found in the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and South America. In addition to being “hidden workers” at homes or on family farms, children can be employed in occupations such as making bangles, beedis (a type of cigarette made in India), textiles, and other manufacturing jobs that exposes them to asbestos, as well as a host of other dangerous substances like pesticides, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals.
Ban Asbestos and Fund Mesothelioma Research Now
Although children, teenagers, and young adults make up a relatively small number of mesothelioma victims, there is no doubt that the number is growing. It will likely continue to grow so long as we continue to allow asbestos to be used in our homes, schools, workplaces, and elsewhere. The time to ban asbestos is now.
It’s also important to take care of those innocent children who have been exposed to asbestos by finding new and better ways to treat mesothelioma and other diseases caused by asbestos. While experimental treatments and clinical trials for mesothelioma are ongoing, few are targeted at children. We need to expand research to help the most vulnerable people among us.
To make your thoughts known on both of these issues, contact your congressional representatives today.
Brenner, Joseph; Sordillo, Peter P.; Magill, Gordon B. (1981) “Malignant mesothelioma in children: Report of seven cases and review of the literature.” Medical and Pediatric Oncology. 9(4):367–373. DOI: 10.1002/mpo.2950090409. PMID: 6790917
Kauffman, Shirley L.; Stout, Arthur Purdy. (April 1964) “Mesothelioma in children.” Cancer. 17(4):539-544.DOI:10.1002/1097-0142(196404)17:4<539::AID-CNCR2820170416>3.0.CO;2-A
Wassermann M., Wassermann D., Steinitz R., Katz L., Lemesch C. (1980) “Mesothelioma in Children.” IARC Scientific Publications. (30):253-257. PMID: 7239644