Illness and Conditions

Are You Aware of This Silent killer?

The year I entered high school, the New York Board of Education delayed our first day of school for two weeks in order to remove “harmful” asbestos. I recall the news coming as more of an extension to summer vacation than a health measure. I hadn’t a clue what the stuff was or why it was harmful; only that it was hidden from view and needed to be removed carefully. Fast forward to 9/11, when the collapse of the towers sent thousands of pounds of iridescent dust into the sky blanketing all of lower Manhattan for months. The pulverized building materials contained asbestos, amongst other things, and everyone who worked at Ground Zero inhaled the largest dose of it. Within 10 years, we started seeing many first responders come down with all sorts of respiratory illnesses, among which was a rare form of cancer called Mesothelioma. Victims and their families have been fighting with Insurance companies and government health agencies ever since to acknowledge that the cancer was directly caused by all those hours exposed to asbestos dust. The sad fact is they shouldn’t have to. All one has to do is take a look back in history to the early part of the 20th century to know what a “silent killer” this material was and still is.

Asbestos fibers poking out of this dry wall

 

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been mined for over 4000 years. In ancient times, it was used to strengthen cooking pots and for creating fire retardant cloth. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, it was only being used in cloth manufacture. However, this soon changed when its key properties of fire proofing and tensile strength helped builders solve the problem of insulating homes on the cheap in densely populated cities like London. Its affordability eventually made it the go to material for many items related to the home. As noted in this article from the Guardian, “The use of asbestos became increasingly widespread towards the end of the 19th century, when its diverse applications included fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipes and fireplace cement, heat, fire, and acid resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing, lawn furniture, and drywall joint compound.” It’s literally in everything! It makes you wonder how many homes built in the US still contain asbestos. Per the U.S. Product Safety Commission site, it’s noted that homes built between 1930 and 1950 may contain asbestos in their insulation. It also adds that in older homes (I’ll take a gander and say homes built in the early 1900’s) the pipes may be coated with asbestos or lined with asbestos blanket. Either way you look at it, asbestos is everywhere, but it only poses a threat if you disturb it.

There is written evidence even from Roman times that asbestos had detrimental affects on the body. In the early 1900’s there were a large number of respiratory issues and early deaths of people who worked with the material in mining towns. Also factored into this death toll were the wives and family members of the workers, presumably due to the fact that they laundered the uniforms caked in asbestos dust. When autopsies were done, the lungs of these people showed lesions and scar tissue created by the asbestos fibers they inhaled. These fibers are comprised of microscopic angular crystals that get into the respiratory tract and literally cut up lung tissue. The resulting scarring or fibrosis and constant irritation to the lung tissue led to a chronic respiratory condition coined asbestosis as well as the development of Mesothelioma. Many investigations were conducted in the early 1900’s into the hazards of asbestos, but this did nothing to curb its mining and use. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that government legislation was set up to regulate its industry; first in the UK and then the US. Better ventilation was called for as well as acknowledging asbestosis as an occupational disease. This was also when mesothelioma was first noted in medical text (c.1931)

With all this evidence, it really confounds me that insurance companies and the government agencies responsible for allocating funding to victims of 9/11 are giving claimants such a hard time. It also confounds me why the US has not fully banned the use of asbestos, unlike Australia and the UK. According to the EPA’s website, asbestos use is not banned in the manufacture, importation, processing and distribution in commerce of the following products:

  • Cement corrugated sheet
  • Cement flat sheet
  • Clothing
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Roofing felt
  • Vinyl floor tile
  • Cement shingle
  • Millboard
  • Cement pipe
  • Automatic transmission components
  • Clutch facings
  • Friction materials
  • Disk brake pads
  • Drum brake linings
  • Brake blocks
  • Gaskets
  • Non-roofing coatings
  • Roof coatings

Um, wow.

This past week of April 1-7th was Asbestos Awareness Week. If you never knew what the stuff was before reading the above, I hope you can understand just what a danger it poses to our environment and obviously, to our health. It’s a bit of a morbid addendum, but asbestos related illnesses, like Mesothelioma, take sometimes decades to show up. As a result, there will be many more deaths related to the dust inhaled after the Towers collapsed in the years to come. These people shouldn’t have to fight for the care they clearly deserve. For more information, see the websites noted below. Then go outside and take a deep breath for every person who can’t do so thanks to asbestos.

 

Additional Information and Sources:

The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance:  http://www.mesothelioma.com/asbestos-cancer/what-is-asbestos.htm

The U.S. Department of Environmental Protection: http://www2.epa.gov/asbestos/us-federal-bans-asbestos

Columbia University Research: http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/dept/medicine/mesothelioma/mesothel.html

 

Illness and Conditions, Integrative Medicine

Psychosomatic Medicine

Acupuncture chart from Chinese medical text circa 1340s A.D.

There is nothing worse than going to a doctor with a host of symptoms and being told there is nothing wrong with you. Many people who appear on the program, Mystery Diagnosis, (my second Discovery Health obsession next to the The Food MD) have had this experience. I recall one particularly disturbing episode, where a young woman complaining of extreme gastrointestinal distress was prescribed an anti-depressant by one of the many doctors she sought answers from. Confused, she asked how these would help her to which the doctor responded that her condition was basically all in her head. When a physical illness or condition is caused by or aggravated by a mental factor it is termed psychosomatic. Essentially, that is how this young woman’s doctor viewed her illness. Many years later, she was properly diagnosed with severe endometriosis, a condition where the cells of the uterus grow in other places of the body causing cramping, severe bleeding and infertility to name a few. In her case, the cells had grown into and over parts of her GI tract. She had a full hysterectomy and a section of her large intestine removed in order to reclaim some quality of life. Take that, anti-depressants!

As you can glean from the above story, defining an illness as psychosomatic carries with it an intense social stigma here in the west, even though almost all physical illnesses have mental factors that determine their onset, presentation, maintenance, susceptibility to treatment and resolution. When doctors dismiss symptoms like in the case of this young woman, the rest of the world follows suit. The person who is suffering internally and externally is labeled “dramatic” or even worse, a liar. For thousands of years, Chinese medicine viewed the psychosomatic as the greatest key to diagnosing deeper illness and imbalance in the body. The strength of the nervous system and physical state of the individual (including their environment) is assessed in order to understand the degree in which an organ or a system is affected. Every symptom is taken into account and treated seriously, with the objective being to restore balance. Moreover, the eastern approach considers how interconnected the body and mind are.

The biggest physical bully is emotional stress, which can infiltrate suddenly or slowly, over a long period of time. Even from a western perspective, stress can be incredibly destructive, wreaking havoc on connective tissues, digestion, vascular integrity and the body’s restorative sleep cycles if not managed properly i.e. not just a script for anti-depressants. In Chinese medicine, if the nervous system of the individual is weak, the symptoms of illness will be more psychological. On a physical level, the organ most affected by the emotional stress will be the weakest/dysfunctional one. Whatever the natural emotions associated with this organ are, they will become stronger and more destructive to the nervous system overall. As the organ breaks down, it takes the system it is associated with along for the ride, leading ultimately to disease. If the emotional stress comes on suddenly, it will affect the Heart and the Lungs. If it is gradual and long term, it will take a toll on the Liver, Spleen and Kidneys. Even more specific is the type of emotional stress broken down into these 5 categories: tense/chronic, shock/sudden, sadness, rumination and fearful emotion. This gives an even more precise view of the affected organs/systems in the body, further honing the treatment approach.

Our young woman with endometriosis would have been assessed as having a strong nervous system in the beginning, as her symptoms were predominantly physical. By the time she had gone to see the doctor who prescribed the anti-depressants, she was exhibiting a combination of physical and mental symptoms. This would signify that her nervous system was deteriorating. If she had also gone to see an eastern doctor from the get go, much of her later suffering might have been alleviated, as the weakest organ, her large intestine would have been addressed immediately with herbs and acupuncture/bodywork. Since organs are partnered in the Chinese system of yin/yang (solid/hollow), the untreated large intestinal dysfunction would have affected her lungs. This woman developed an eczema like rash all over her trunk and extremities that would get worse every time she had a violent bout of diarrhea. The skin is considered the 3rd lung of the body in Chinese medicine. This symptom developed 5 years after her initial bout of gastrointestinal distress. After ten years, she began to bleed copiously during her period, which lasted over two weeks. Initial blood tests had already indicated she was mildly anemic, but this massive blood loss rendered her immobile. Ironically, during this time, her large intestine dysfunction seemed to dissipate; however, as soon as the period would end, the violent diarrhea would return. At this point in her illness, the Spleen had become involved. Responsible for creating Blood/Qi and keeping things upright and in their proper place, it’s no wonder that when she finally got her diagnosis 15 years in the making, this was the most affected organ. (Note: One could even argue that the Spleen could have been the weakest organ overall, but I won’t complicate things for the reader) The cells of the uterus growing out of control outside of their proper place is demonstrative of Spleen weakness. The uncontrollable bleeding led to a massive loss of Qi that just couldn’t be replaced by her depleted system. The only solution, at that point, was to remove the uterus and large intestine to prevent the out of control cell growth from migrating elsewhere. While organ removal can have detrimental affects on the Spleen, it proved more harmful to keep the stagnation in there than to remove it. If I were this young woman, I would seek out an acupuncturist to help me keep my nervous system strong and balance the loss of the organs that were surgically removed. They would be able to recommend herbs and dietary changes to support her treatment. After watching this episode, it made me all the more fired up about Integrating Eastern and Western medicine. If East met West from the beginning, she and others like her would have been spared a lifetime of suffering. We would all have a better understanding of our body-mind relationship and keep the stigmatic tongue wagging at bay.

SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING:

http://www.dragonrises.edu/learning-opportunities/articles-books/

http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/