Asbestos still causes cancer

Asbestos pollution : Second hand aggressive cancer

Marlene Zepp is a former sports teacher, an agile and lively woman who, at the age of 78, still whizzes down the red slopes on skis. But one day she becomes short of breath. In the ultrasound scan, the doctor sees water around the left lung. She has to go to the hospital immediately. In January 2015, the doctors at the Thoraxklinik Heidelberg discovered a pleural mesothelioma, a highly aggressive pleurisy. “I knew straight away that it was a death sentence,” says the daughter, Birgit Löffler, who practices as a general practitioner. And: The tumor, which is very rare in itself, is actually always due to asbestos fibers, sometimes in small quantities.

Hundreds of asbestos-related tumors develop annually

Her mother never worked with asbestos, but her husband, who died long ago in an accident, did. For thirty years at Hoechst AG he wore protective clothing that was exposed to the fibers. Ms. Zepp washed them at home - as prescribed in the employment contract.

Every year around 500 people in this country fall ill with the asbestos-related tumor who have not worked with the fiber themselves, estimates the Berlin occupational physician Xaver Baur. With their health, they pay for the capital carelessness in the factories at the time: it was already known at the beginning of the 19th century that asbestos fibers are dangerous, which is why insurers did not grant life insurance to workers who were burdened. Regardless of this, the real boom in natural fibers did not begin until after the Second World War. Up until the 1990s, the highly refractory material was found almost everywhere where high temperatures occurred: in protective suits and gloves, in brake linings, in night storage heaters and thermos flasks. According to the employment contracts at the time, employees mostly had to wash their uniforms at home. Often this housework was done by the wives, who inhaled the fibers when shaking out and hanging up the textiles. In the neighboring countries - Switzerland, the Netherlands and France - these domestic asbestos victims are compensated through funds. Not so in Germany.

The Federal Asbestosis Association (another, often severe disease caused by the mineral) has long been calling for an adjustment. The Conference of Health Ministers took a decision last year that the government should examine compensation. But nothing happened.

It can take up to 60 years for cancer to break out

Asbestos fibers penetrate deep into the alveoli. The phagocytes, which usually discharge foreign matter, cannot do this with the hard mineral fibers. They even die. This releases chronic inflammatory substances. Cancer can develop over a latency period of up to 60 years, especially mesothelioma, lung, larynx and ovarian cancer. "We are only now seeing the peak of the wave of diseases," says Inke Feder from the German Mesothelioma Register at the Ruhr University in Bochum.

Again and again, however, even experts claim that the fibers do not last that long and are gradually excreted. However, in a study published in 2017, Feder showed that the asbestos content in lung tissue can remain the same for forty years: "We were able to demonstrate this in one and the same patient using microscopic examinations."

Every year around a thousand mesothelioma patients are recognized as occupationally ill. The Robert Koch Institute registered 1,600 cases in 2014. “There is a discrepancy of a good 500 cases per year that are obviously not related to the work,” says Baur. Among them are relatives who have been burdened at home and do-it-yourselfers who have not adequately protected themselves. Some patients may also die before the professional associations recognize their case after months of procedure. Because there are no specific therapies for this rare type of cancer. Because the number of affected patients is small compared to other tumor diseases, the pharmaceutical industry hardly invests. Qualified specialists are rare. The result: patients usually die within a year, men much faster than women.

"Many asbestos removals are not carried out properly"

In 2014, Marlene Zepp is still so vigorous that she wants to defy fate and fight for her life. She gets chemotherapy and radiation. The tumor recedes. During this time she remembers something important: from 1960 to 1963 she worked at Höchst as a secretary in the company where her husband also worked in phosphorus production. She was sitting at the desk. In the stairwell, however, she met the workers in their dusty, asbestos-contaminated suits. Occasionally she had to bring an urgent letter into production. It is true that she inhaled a lot more fibers when washing her husband's clothes. However, she wonders whether she can claim a professional burden and thus compensation due to these three years and turns to the law firm Battenstein near Düsseldorf, which specializes in such cases.

Although its use has been banned in Germany since 1993, asbestos has far from disappeared. It is found in floor adhesives, in old masonry, spray plaster, insulating materials, road surfaces and in elevator and escalator shafts. Workers are only allowed to renovate these with protective suits and breathing masks. The building would actually have to be encased in plastic sheeting and the air inside would have to be sucked out permanently with pumps. Many buildings from the 1950s and 1960s are likely to be affected. Why is it so rare to see construction workers in full-body protective suits?

"A large part of the renovation work is not carried out properly, the strict regulations are not adhered to, which is why the air is constantly contaminated with asbestos fibers, especially in large cities," complains the occupational physician Baur. He himself only recently reported a company - a designated asbestos removal company from Berlin - to the police when it began to renovate a neighboring house without protective measures, although it can be proven that it contained the carcinogenic fibers. Due to this deficiency, the Federal Asbestosis Association is calling for a public asbestos cadastre in which owners, buyers, sellers and builders can look up the properties in which the fibers are located.

Asbestos is not banned in all countries

Due to construction work, there are usually a few hundred asbestos fibers per cubic meter of air in large cities like Berlin. There are also loopholes in the regulations: For example, asbestos can get into the air when working in quarries. "This widespread contamination of the environment, especially in cities, also causes cancer cases, because there is no practical lower exposure limit," says Baur. However, there are also studies that suggest that low doses are safe.

In many countries the material is still allowed. In 2017, 1.3 million tons of asbestos were mined worldwide. Asbestos-insulated thermos flasks, for example, can still reach Germany via internet sales.

In 2016 the tumor in Marlene Zepp's body grows again. Surgeons remove a rib. But from then on she is worse off. Water is constantly pooling around the left lung. “Her life consisted only of three words: fear, shortness of breath and pain,” the daughter recalls. In the fall of 2017, Zepp died in a hospice with an analgesic morphine pump. It was "terrible", says Löffler.

After that, the daughter continues to fight for justice for her mother in court. One year after their death, in autumn 2018, the disease was recognized as an occupational disease due to the three years of working in the asbestos-processing company. It doesn’t help Ms. Zepp anymore, but she would have received a pension - but not because of the housework that the illness probably brought her.

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