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Asbestos and cancer: 100 years after the link was determined

The logic seems fairly straightforward: If a substance is known to cause cancer, society should avoid that substance and people will stop developing the kind of cancer inspired by exposure to the substance. The logic is fairly straightforward in theory, yet not always in practice. For example, society has long understood that smoking causes a variety of preventable cancers. Yet, cigarettes are still sold in millions of establishments and millions of people begin smoking each year.

Though exposure to asbestos is in many ways nothing like choosing to smoke, it is also not a completely unrelated phenomenon. Medical professionals, legislators and public health experts have now understood the asbestos-mesothelioma connection for a full century. And yet, individuals continue to be exposed to toxic asbestos and continue to die painful mesothelioma-related deaths. Tobacco and asbestos both continue to plague society despite a significant understanding of the consequences caused by exposure.

Why does preventable mesothelioma continue to affect Americans? The answer to this question is both simple and undeniably complex. The simple answer is that we somehow have not summoned the political will to eliminate asbestos-related risks from our workplaces, homes and schools. As a result, people continue to suffer toxic exposure and are greatly harmed by the inaction of those who could ensure that this substance no longer causes havoc in our lives.

The more complicated answer involves the fact that mesothelioma takes time to develop and cause symptoms, so by the time an individual understands that he or she has been exposed, it is too late to right that individual wrong. In addition, asbestos remains an important element of various products.

If Americans got as serious about eliminating the threat of asbestos as the European Union has, our mesothelioma rates would eventually plummet. However, fairly simple and incredibly complex realities have caused the asbestos-mesothelioma connection to be a phenomenon that we understand but do not adequately avoid.

Source: The Independent, "We have known asbestos causes cancer for more than 100 years. So why are people still dying?" David Crookes, July 4, 2013 

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