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Small or infrequent asbestos exposure can lead to mesothelioma

For years, we've been led to believe that asbestos only poses a danger to those who are exposed to high levels of it repeatedly over several years. Asbestos companies have assured us that low levels of the toxin do not increase a person's chances of developing diseases such as malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer linked to the mineral. A new study indicates otherwise, suggesting that even minimal asbestos exposure can actually place you at greater risk of being diagnosed with the disease.

Low levels of exposure, high cancer risks in small Italian town

The study was carried out by Italian public health officials. The focus of their research was the population of Broni, a small town that was home to an asbestos factory for more than 60 years. The researchers  reviewed the medical records of 200 people who died of asbestos-related illnesses (including mesothelioma) between 2000 and 2017. Health officials carefully analyzed the records to determine how much asbestos patients were exposed to throughout their lifetimes.

Asbestos exposure research yields startling results

The researchers were surprised by what they found. As can be expected, many employees of the asbestos cement plant developed diseases associated with the contaminant. Researchers observed that people who were exposed to asbestos only peripherally - through contact with at-risk family members and the environment - were less likely to succumb to asbestosis, lung cancer, and related illnesses. But health officials were shocked to discover that these residents were at a much greater risk of specifically developing mesothelioma than those who were exposed to asbestos in the workplace. What's more, those who had indirect contact with the toxin experienced a more rapid progression of the cancer than those who were exposed directly on a daily basis.

The takeaway: There is no safe level of asbestos exposure

Workers' exposure to asbestos is much lower than it was prior to the 1970s, when widespread recognition of the dangers it poses led to regulations limiting its use.  But the Italian study reveals that even small amounts of the material can be hazardous to your health. The study's authors concluded that there is really no safe level of asbestos exposure. While many businesses take these risks seriously, others are not doing enough to look out for employees' health and safety. These companies need to be held accountable.  Protecting workers from asbestos exposure promotes the well-being of their families and communities, too.

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