According to a respected mesothelioma doctor, hundreds of lives could be saved if people who were exposed to asbestos in the workplace underwent annual chest X-rays.
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare and deadly cancer that affects the membranes that surround the lungs, heart, and abdominal organs. The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to the mineral asbestos. Asbestos is only used in some industrial applications in the United States these days, but is still present in insulation, flooring, and roofing of many thousands of older homes and buildings. Living or working around asbestos raises a person’s chances of a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Right now, there is no way to predict whether a person who has been exposed to asbestos will develop mesothelioma. As with other cancers, early detection of mesothelioma improves the survival rate, which is very low for this disease. Unfortunately, mesothelioma may be present for years before symptoms show up.
Roy Smythe, MD, Surgery Department Chairman of Texas A&M University Health Sciences Center College of Medicine, suggests that people who have a history of working near asbestos should have a yearly chest X-ray to help identify mesothelioma at earlier stages. “I’ve seen hundreds of patients with [mesothelioma] in my career and I’ve seen less than five with Stage I,” Smythe told a local newspaper.
Unfortunately, an annual chest X-ray may not be feasible for every person exposed to asbestos. While some employers pay for annual chest X-rays to identify potential mesothelioma, this is not a requirement of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s mesothelioma surveillance guidelines.
OSHA requires that employers institute a surveillance program for “all employees who are or will be exposed to asbestos at or above the permissible exposure limit (0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air).” The required program includes annual exams during which surveys are completed, case histories are taken, and lung function tests are conducted. X-rays are not required. This surveillance must be free to the patient.
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 1.3 million people have been exposed to asbestos at work.