Thousands of Americans continue to die from asbestos exposure decades after many uses were banned since the cancers can take years to show up. We are now in the so-called "third wave" of asbestos-related disease. The first wave was in the asbestos miners, which started in the 1920s. The second phase was in the workers--the ship-builders and construction workers that used the stuff in the '30s, '40s, and '50s.
Now, as buildings "constructed with asbestos over the past six decades begin to age and deteriorate," not only are workers at risk, but "potential also exists for serious environmental exposure to asbestos among residents, tenants and users of these buildings, such as school children, office workers, maintenance workers, and the general public."
"The Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have projected that over the next 30 years approximately 1,000 cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer will occur among persons in the United States exposed to asbestos in school buildings as school children."
To see if something is carcinogenic, we study those who have the most exposure. That's how we learned about the potential cancer-causing dangers of asbestos, and that's how we're learning about the potential cancer-causing dangers of poultry viruses. For years I've talked about the excess mortality in poultry workers associated with these wart-causing chicken cancer viruses that may be transmitted to those in the general population handling fresh or frozen chicken (See Wart Cancer Viruses in Food). Last year I talked about the largest study at the time "confirming the findings of three other studies to date that workers in poultry slaughtering and processing plants have increased risk of dying from certain cancers," that also added penis cancer to the risks linked to poultry exposure (See Poultry and Penis Cancer). That was looking at 20,000 poultry workers. Well, we have yet another study, now looking at 30,000.
The purpose of the study, profiled in my video, Poultry Tied to Liver and Pancreatic Cancer, was to test the hypothesis that exposure to poultry cancer-causing viruses that widely occurs occupationally in poultry workers--not to mention the general population--may be associated with increased risks of deaths from liver and pancreatic cancers. They found that those who slaughter chickens have about nine times the odds of both pancreatic cancer and liver cancer.
Just to put this in context, the most carefully studied risk factor for pancreatic cancer, one of our deadliest cancers, is cigarette smoking. Even if we smoke for more than 50 years, though, we "only" about double our odds of pancreatic cancer. Those who slaughter poultry appear to have nearly nine times the odds.
For liver cancer the most well-known and studied cause is alcohol. Those who consume more than four drinks a day have triple the odds of liver cancer. As with pancreatic cancer, poultry slaughtering appears to increase one's odds of getting liver cancer nine-fold. Thus, the cancer-causing viruses in poultry may explain the increasing risk of death from liver and pancreatic cancers.
There are diseases unique to the meat industry like the newly described "salami brusher's disease" that affects those whose job it is to wire brush off the white mold that naturally grows on salami for eight hours a day, but most diseases suffered by meat workers are more universal. The reason the connection between asbestos and cancer was so easy to nail down is that asbestos caused a particularly unusual cancer, which was virtually unknown until there was widespread asbestos mining and industrial use. The pancreatic cancer one might get from handling chicken, however, is the same pancreatic cancer one might get smoking cigarettes, so it's more difficult to tease out a cause-and-effect-relationship. Bottom line: despite the extremely high risks of deadly cancers, don't expect an asbestos-type ban on Kentucky Fried Chicken anytime soon.
I've addressed this topic before. See:
- Obesity-Causing Chicken Virus
- Carcinogenic Retrovirus Found in Eggs
- Chicken Dioxins, Viruses, or Antibiotics?
- Poultry Exposure and Neurological Disease
It's ironic that the meat industry wants to add viruses to meat (Viral Meat Spray) to combat fecal bacterial contamination. I'd take that over their other bright idea any day, though (Maggot Meat Spray).
Although workers with the most poultry exposure appear to suffer the greatest excess mortality, increased deaths from cancer are also found in other slaughterhouse workers. More on that in Eating Outside Our Kingdom.
-Michael Greger, M.D.
Image Credit: Peter Cooper / Flickr