September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, an opportunity to raise awareness of the cancers that affect the more than 15,000 children younger than 21 diagnosed with cancer each year. The most common types of cancers affecting children include leukemia, brain and spinal cord tumors, neuroblastoma and lymphoma.
Rarely does a child get mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure.
But in April, Macie Greening was diagnosed at just 14 years old. Doctors were baffled. How could Macie have been exposed to asbestos? Furthermore, asbestos cancer typically takes years – even decades – to develop. Once diagnosed, prognosis is poor. Most people live an average of 18 months.
Macie’s parents say she is one of just nine children in the United Kingdom to have the disease, and one of 20 in the world.
Doctors may never know how Macie contracted the disease. Her parents are not aware of her being exposed to the carcinogen, which can be found in building materials like insulation and tiles, and friction products like brakes and clutches. It can also be found in talc-containing products.
People who work in asbestos-contaminated environments are at the greatest risk of asbestos exposure and its associated ill effects. But those workers can put their loved ones at risk for secondary asbestos exposure, which is just as deadly.
Secondary asbestos exposure
Heather Von St. James remembers as a child putting on her father’s dust-covered work jacket and wearing it around the house and outdoors while she played with her pet rabbits. She didn’t know that the fine powder that covered his jacket – sheetrock dust and other material from job sites he worked – contained microscopic asbestos fibers, and that, years later, it would result in a diagnosis that would threaten her life.
St. James was 36 and had just given birth to her daughter when she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a type of cancer that forms in the lining that covers the lungs, abdomen and other internal organs. St. James is now 54, and is a rare long-term survivor of the disease, having contracted it from secondary asbestos exposure.
The fact that spouses and children can be at risk of the dangers of asbestos through secondary exposure shows just how dangerous asbestos is.
The use of asbestos is banned in 60 countries, but not in the U.S. Instead, the U.S. placed restrictions on asbestos and thus its use has significantly declined since the 1980s. But a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Trump administration will allow new uses of the mineral, a notion St. James finds “unconscionable.”
Consumer health care giant Johnson & Johnson also appears to be thumbing its nose at the dangers of asbestos. The company has repeatedly refused to put warning labels on bottles of its Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower body powder despite being hit with billions of dollars in verdicts in recent months after jurors found Johnson & Johnson’s talc-containing products contained asbestos and caused some individuals to develop mesothelioma and ovarian cancer.
Other companies have been proactive in pulling products that have been found to contain asbestos. In January, for example, Claire’s Stores Inc., removed nine talc-containing makeup products marketed to children and teenagers from its retail stores after a CNN affiliate reported that some of the products contained tremolite asbestos.
In 2015, the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) announced that testing of toys and school supplies revealed that many major brands of crayons – including Rose Art and Crayola – contain trace amounts of asbestos. Many brands responded by reformulating their crayons to eliminate asbestos.
However, follow-up testing earlier this year by PRIG found that Playskool brand crayons still contain asbestos. A spokesperson for Hasbro, which owns Playskool brand, said that the company would investigate the findings and work with LeapYear, the licensee of the product, to determine what actions to take, if any.
American Childhood Cancer Organization