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Asbestos Exposure Can Increase the Risk of Ovarian Cancer

woman_constructionDuring the 20th century, the use of asbestos was prevalent in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Manufacturers liked the mineral for its ability to resist both heat and friction. By the mid-1970s, asbestos was present in more than 3,000 commercial and industrial products, such as materials used for insulation, fireproofing and soundproofing. But during the following decades, the public became more aware of what scientists had been saying for years: asbestos exposure increases one’s risk of being diagnosed with a malignant disease.

When people think of illnesses associated with asbestos, pleural or peritoneal forms of mesothelioma may come to mind. However, these mineral fibers also increase the risk of ovarian cancer, which could be bad news for women who regularly came in contact with asbestos.

An international team measures the risk
Experts from the National Cancer Institute describe ovarian cancer as a disease that may start on the epithelial surface of the organ or within the egg cells that the gonad produces. As of 2008, it was the second leading cause of death related to gynecologic cancer.

Risk factors for ovarian cancer include tobacco use and menopausal therapy that only includes the hormone estrogen. However, in 2011, an international team of scientists came together to investigate the impact of asbestos exposure on the development of ovarian malignancies.

For their meta-analysis, the researchers went through several databases and looked for previous studies that mentioned ovarian cancer and asbestos. They specifically focused on papers that studied individuals who worked in jobs where they were likely to come in contact with the mineral, such as asbestos miners, textile workers and manufacturers of products such as asbestos cement and insulation materials.

“The findings from this analysis are consistent with the hypothesis that exposure to asbestos is associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer,” the researchers wrote in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. “Based on our sensitivity analysis, it appears unlikely that our results can be fully explained by misclassification of ovarian cancer and peritoneal mesothelioma or other sources of bias and confounding.”

The scientists also discovered that the risk was greater among women who had high levels of exposure to asbestos. This mineral was especially prevalent in the manufacturing of textiles, prefabricated cement pipe, cement and gas masks.

How does asbestos cause ovarian cancer?
The researchers were not entirely sure how asbestos can cause a malignancy to develop in the ovaries, but there is evidence that chronic inflammation from persistent exposure plays a role. While some scientists theorize that asbestos fibers may enter the reproductive tract and make their way toward the gonads, there is more support for the hypothesis that asbestos fibers reach the organs by circulation through the blood or lymphatic systems.

Women need to know to protect themselves
At Kazan, McClain, Lyons, Greenwood and Harley, we want to make sure that women know that they have a right to protect themselves from asbestos exposure in the workplace. The Environmental Protection Agency has several tips for employees:

  • Workplace exposure cannot exceed 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of air over the course of eight hours. For the short term, exposure is allowed to top out at 1 fiber per cubic centimeter over 30 minutes. Employers are not allowed to rotate their shift workers to achieve compliance.
  • Depending on the level of exposure, employers must conduct at least some monitoring of airborne fiber concentrations if they expect to surpass the permissible exposure limits (PEL).
  • Employers must designate controlled zones that are expected to put workers at risk. These areas are to be restricted to employees who are wearing protective gear and are knowledgeable about the danger.
  • Protective clothing is required for workers at risk of exposure that exceeds the PEL.
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