The grave health risks of asbestos exposure have been known and documented since the 1930s, though not publically until the mid-1970s and even later in some parts of the world. Lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma and other fatal lung conditions are definitively and irrefutably linked to asbestos exposure. Now, esteemed medical researchers are linking certain kinds of autoimmune disease to asbestos. Lung cancer lawyers at Pintas & Mullins explore these new findings on how the immune system responds to asbestos.
Autoimmune disorders can occur in anyone and can be caused by anything from genetics to environmental factors, though exact causes are often unknown. These disorders are characterized by the body's inability to distinguish between healthy tissues and harmful antigens, thus compromising the immune system. Our immune systems are made up primarily of white blood cells, which protect against antigens such as asbestos, bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells.
Healthy immune systems produce antibodies to destroy antigens - those with autoimmune disorders are unable to distinguish between the two, so the antigens destroy all tissue, healthy or not. An autoimmune disorder can affect any part of the body, including the brain, muscles, skin, or lungs, with an array of consequences, such as changes in organ function, abnormal growth, or slow destruction.
There are about seven different types of asbestos fibers, some much more dangerous than others. One of these strains, known as amphibole asbestos, has a particularly destructive effect on the immune system; chrysotile asbestos, on the other hand, is most associated with cancer development.
Amphibole asbestos was mined heavily in the small Montana town of Libby for over half a century. As a result, residents of the town have been slowly dying of lung cancer and asbestos-related illnesses, even if they were not work in the mine. The town has come to be known for this tragic history, a sort of relic of how devastating the substance is, capable of ravaging entire communities.
Medical experts have noted that the amphibole asbestos in Libby is associated with the activation of autoantibodies in those exposed. Specifically, amphibole induces a response from the Th-17 protein, which is implicated in many other diseases like lupus, arthritis, and systemic sclerosis.
Libby, Montana has become a target for large-scale studies on asbestos exposure. In 2000, the CDC conducted a screening program in the town in an attempt to quantify the health consequences. More than 7,000 residents took part, answering questions related to their exposure. Nearly 500 residents - or about 7% of the population - reported having been diagnosed with either lupus, systemic sclerosis, or arthritis.
In the general population the likelihood that someone would be diagnosed with one of these three ailments in less than 1%. The high rates in Libby led CDC researchers to collect serum samples from residents, comparing their autoantibodies with control subjects in a different Montana town with no history of asbestos presence. In their findings, which were recently published in *Environmental Health Perspectives, the prevalence of autoantibodies was nearly 30% higher than in the control subjects, and the intensity of these antibodies were also significantly higher. Furthermore, researchers found that those who had multiple exposures to amphibole asbestos were four times more likely to be diagnosed with lupus.
Studies in Libby continue to be conducted: most recently, experts have started focusing on residents who have developed unusual and serious progressive pulmonary illnesses. Many of these patients eventually die of infections, lose lung functioning completely, and endure terrible pain. Researchers believe that the amphibole asbestos produce autoantibodies that scar the tissue surrounding the lungs, causing them to harden and rendering them unable to function. They are considering this a new type of autoimmune disease, working to officially classify it as such.
The asbestos mine in Libby was run by a company called W.R. Grace. The company's internal documents note that more than 9.7 billion pound s of asbestos-containing ore was mined from the town between 1960 and 1990, shipping all over the U.S. and Canada. Asbestos was then stripped from the ore to be used in dozens of products, such as brake pads and building insulation.