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Post-9/11 cancer?

11 September 2011

It’s the 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, and when the World Trade Center towers went down, a very large dust plume came up. That dust contained a large amount of asbestos, a highly carcinogenic substance for those exposed to it via inhalation. Survivors of the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001 will be at risk for development of what is usually a rare form of cancer in the years and decades to come.

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that arises from the lining of the lung, the mesothelium, which forms the outer boundary of the lung and separates the lung from the rest of the thoracic cavity.

Mesothelioma is HIGHLY associated with exposure to asbestos, which has been in wide use as an insulator and flame retardant since the 1940’s. As with most types of cancer that have a strong link to environmental stimuli (lung cancer and smoking, for instance), there is a lag time of a decade or more until onset of disease. The epidemiological data (correlation) and biochemical / experimental data (causation) for the link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma is exceptionally strong. (1)

Asbestos contains many small fibers that are not able to be broken down by the immune system. The current model for how mesothelioma arises from asbestos is that local inflammation in response to the fibers causes sustained oxidative stress of the local tissues, over time giving rise to tumors. Mesothelioma might also directly bind and damage DNA. (2)

As with most types of cancer, catching the disease in its early phases can greatly enhance survival. If you or someone you know has been exposed to asbestos, talking to a medical doctor about it can both help identify symptoms and alleviate mental stress and anxiety.


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