Scientists have long known that mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that affects the membrane around organs, is not the only cancer linked to asbestos exposure. Numerous studies have also found a link between asbestos and lung cancer.
Now, a new study conducted in France and published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine suggests that, in addition to mesothelioma, asbestos-exposed workers also face a significantly higher risk of digestive cancers, including cancers of the esophagus, liver, colon and rectum.
The study focused on a group of 2024 workers who worked in an asbestos plant in France between 1978 and 2009. Not surprisingly, people in the study faced a higher incidence of mesothelioma, a cancer that is extremely rare in the general public. But 119 of these workers were diagnosed with digestive cancers. That rate was almost 50 percent higher than that of non-asbestos-exposed people in the same region.
Outside of mesothelioma, the link between asbestos and cancer was strongest in colorectal cancer, particularly for people who had been around asbestos the longest. “Concerning colorectal cancer, a significant excess of risk was observed for men with exposure duration above 25 years,” writes author Dr. Mathilde Boulanger of the University of Caen.
Although most of the workers were men, women in the study faced a significantly elevated risk of peritoneal mesothelioma, an even rarer form of mesothelioma that occurs in the abdomen. In men, the findings “suggest a relationship” between asbestos and esophageal cancer and “suggest a possible association” between asbestos and small intestine and liver cancers.
Of the cancers associated with asbestos exposure, mesothelioma remains one of the hardest to treat. It is highly resistant to conventional therapies and highly aggressive. These two facts make the prognosis dismal for patients, many of whom die of the disease within a year or diagnosis.
Like mesothelioma, asbestos-linked cancers of all types are often the result of negligence on the part of employers who failed to properly warn, equip or train their workers to avoid the toxin.
Boulanger, Mathilde, “Digestive cancers and occupational asbestos exposure: incidence study in a cohort of asbestos plant workers”, August 24, 2015, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Epub ahead of print