During the latter half of the 20th century, the general public started to become more aware of the fact that asbestos exposure can increase the risk of several potentially fatal diseases, a relationship that scientists had known about for a much longer period of time. Contact with the hazardous material is usually a consequence of occupational exposure, as well as handling products that were manufactured with asbestos. Once inside the body, asbestos fibers can wreak havoc.
When most people think about asbestos-related diseases, diseases such as malignant pleural mesothelioma or other conditions affecting the respiratory system may come to mind. However, the mineral may also have a negative impact on several other organs.
For example, one team of doctors from New York suspect that asbestos exposure may explain the relationship between two diseases of the blood-forming system in a electrician who had also been diagnosed with asbestosis.
Overproduction of blood cells causes problems
The case study, which was recently published in the journal Clinical Advances in Hematology and Oncology, concerned two blood-related disorders: essential thrombocythemia (ET) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
The National Institutes of Health describes ET as a disease in which the body produces too many platelets, which are the blood cells that help form clots in cases of bleeding. Some patients who have ET may never experience any symptoms, while some develop unhealthy clots, abnormal bleeding, enlarged spleens, weakness, headaches, bodily pains or other complications.
Mutations in several genes may cause ET, including the gene JAK2.
The National Cancer Institute characterizes CLL as a type of cancer in which the bone marrow produces too many abnormal white blood cells. This disease mainly occurs during or after middle age.
Doctors find a rare connection
There have been relatively few cases in which ET and CLL were associated with each other in the same patient. However, physicians from New York may have found such a case in a former naval shipyard electrician. In 1994, the man complained to doctors about several weeks of fatigue. After conducting a few medical tests, they diagnosed him with ET. However, genetic tests revealed that he had no JAK2 mutations.
The patient had more to worry about when, in 2000, he developed a shortness of breath. Radiological scans led the doctors to diagnose him with asbestosis.
The man’s case become even more complicated in 2006, when blood tests revealed an imbalance in his white blood cells, which was ultimately attributed to CLL.
“Electricians are amongst those with a significant exposure to asbestos,” the researchers wrote. “Our patient is an electrician and shipyard worker and has a significant asbestos exposure history, as evidenced by pulmonary asbestosis. The occurrence of ET and subsequently, CLL, in the setting of significant asbestos exposure may be related in part to chronic inflammation from the exposure.”
The scientists argued that more studied need to be done in order to determine whether there is a relationship between asbestosis, ET and CLL, and that these conditions did not coincide by chance within the electrician whom they studied.