Mesothelioma: a growing concern for boating enthusiasts

Boating and sailing enthusiasts are growing in number throughout the US and around the world. Whether boats are providing a source of income, a leisurely way to spend retirement, or an occasional fishing weekend, time on the water continues to offer something for everyone.  Like many activities, however, boating necessitates safety and know-how. One issue of boating safety that often goes unknown is that of asbestos exposure, the cause of rare cancer mesothelioma.

Caused by exposure to toxic chemical asbestos, malignant mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer affecting an estimated twenty thousand people each year worldwide. Mesothelioma is characterized by a long latency period, often going unnoticed for twenty to fifty years. When symptoms do demonstrate, they mimic those of bronchitis or pneumonia, making diagnosis additionally difficult. Due to its long latency period, mesothelioma is often diagnosed around the age of retirement; most male mesothelioma patients are diagnosed between the ages of sixty and seventy. Mesothelioma life expectancy is short, averaging eighteen months.

Asbestos causes mesothelioma by being inhaled or ingested. Once inside the body, asbestos fibers can become caught in abdominal organ lining, instigating a mutative process of tumor development. Mesothelioma tumors spread irregularly through organ lining. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of this cancer, and is specific to lung lining. Peritoneal mesothelioma is the less common type and found in lining of other organs such as the heart or diaphragm.

Asbestos was heavily used in the US through most of the last century, and relied upon in the shipbuilding industry. Known for its fire resistant qualities and durability, asbestos become the staple for ship and boat construction. Asbestos was used throughout the body of boats and is still present in components such as engine insulation, plumbing works, valve packs and interior wallboards.  Relatively safe if left undamaged, over time asbestos fibers can escape from containing materials through normal wear and tear. However, asbestos fibers often become airborne faster and in greater quantities during repairs and routine maintenance. Without knowing what to look for, and being aware of the risks, boat owners and operators could cause asbestos exposure, putting themselves and others at risk.

The best way to ensure safety during boat repairs or maintenance is to seek professional help to distinguish asbestos fibers and safely remove them from the area. Professional asbestos abatement groups must go through specific testing and licensure to provide such services; boat owners are cautioned to check references and paperwork to ensure all legal requirements have been fulfilled.

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