Dr. Michael Harbut, a world-renowned researcher and physician with several decades of experience treating asbestos exposed patients, leads a team of occupational hazard researchers at the St. John Providence Health System in Michigan. Harbut is the medical advisor to The Breath of Life Foundation since inception in 2009 and continues to be a trusted partner with the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers. Dr. Harbut is available if any members of our Insulators Union family have questions regarding diagnosis or the approach your doctor might be taking for as asbestos-related disease. Dr. Harbut can be reached at 248-849-3107.
I want to be sure every Insulator has the chance to be as well-informed as possible about every aspect of just how deadly asbestos is and the actions being taken by the HFIAW in conjunction with hospitals, universities, medical schools, researchers and scientists to triumph over lethal asbestos diseases.
Asbestos suffocates, murders, maims and tortures Insulators, who go to work in order to bring home a paycheck, not the mayhem caused by asbestos. By the way, President Trump has called this same asbestos safe. Perhaps it is why President Trump’s picture was plastered on the sides of asbestos containers exported from Russia.
It is now the fall of 2019. We went to the moon and back 50 years ago, and we now carry cell phones in our pockets with more computer power than was used to send Alan Shepherd into space. We have witnessed enormous social, civil and political changes in the United States and around the world.
With a special insight rarely seen in a journalist, ABC Nightline’s Ted Koppel documented the starvation, murder and genocide of 600,000 Rwandan Hutu and Tutsi. In Poland, Lech Walesa, an electrician, started the Solidarity Union during the 1980 Gdańsk shipyard strikes. The action taken by Walesa and brave Poles was the first action in the chain of events that led to the overthrow of communism in Poland and eventually Europe. By the end of the decade, the movement that began in Poland led to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in Germany, which separated East from West, and freedom from totalitarianism.
Over the past 50 years, medical research has transformed science fiction into everyday realities. Today, doctors regularly transplant lungs, livers, hearts, kidneys, bone marrow and stem cells. Perhaps one of the most remarkable achievements were the advancements made to successfully treat AIDS, which many scientists once believed was impossible.
The list of medical victories in both clinical medicine and the research field over the last 30 years is enormous.
These gains sometimes had a euphoric effect, clouding the judgment of some “experts,” who claimed asbestos was not a problem anymore. In the 1980s, there was an ill-informed belief among some physicians and scientists (just so you know, I was not one of them) that asbestos would be removed from the list of threats to the public health. The reasoning behind this thought was the use of asbestos in the U.S. reached its peak in the summer of 1989, and after 30 years, as usage dropped, so would cases of asbestos-related disease
This is not a bad theory, if we lived in a perfect world. The problem with this thought, as we all know, is our world is not perfect. Actual amounts of asbestos used, when it was found, where it was found, and many other variables, not the least of which was the accuracy of medical diagnoses, have all contributed to the slow pace of the expansion of asbestos-related medical knowledge.
This is especially true in the case of mesothelioma, a cancer caused only by exposure to asbestos. This type of cancer, often called meso because mesothelioma is so hard to pronounce, is especially deadly when compared to other types of cancers. A very small amount of asbestos can cause meso.
Even though the Federal government has issued guidelines for permissible exposure limits to asbestos, most medical experts believe there is no such thing as a safe level of exposure. In other words, any exposure to asbestos could cause mesothelioma. If you were to take asbestos fibers and place an amount known to be dangerous on a Lincoln penny, you would only fill the space between Lincoln’s nose and the edge of the coin before you had enough asbestos to cause meso.
There is usually a long period of time between the inhalation of a tiny amount of asbestos and the development of mesothelioma, which is known as the latency period. Although the latency period can be shorter, it usually takes 25 to 40 years from the time of the first exposure to asbestos until the meso is detectable by current means.
This issue of detectability is extremely important when considering new tactics in the war on meso. It is such a deadly disease because it is hard to diagnose, and it grows quickly.
Treating this cancer is difficult as well, since meso cells rapidly learn to resist just about every attempt to kill them – ranging from chemotherapy to radiation therapy to surgery. Sadly, the life span of most people diagnosed with mesothelioma is usually, but not always, measured in months.
What can be done, you may ask?
There is a strong and growing feeling in the meso community that the best and quickest way to reduce the number of meso deaths is to diagnose a meso at an earlier stage. The Insulators Union, with this principle in mind, joined with physicians, scientists, medical schools, a British medical device manufacturer, a Japanese pharmaceutical company, universities and hospitals to focus on and lead an attack against the scourge of meso, which has stolen years of happiness and lives from Insulator families.
General President James McCourt and General Secretary-Treasurer Greg Revard raised this broadly based army of highly trained meso experts. General President McCourt and Secretary-Treasurer Revard worked tirelessly over the last two years to organize the resources and grit required to engage in this war, which has in many ways, excluded workers from the battlefield. It is a courageous undertaking.
This is the first time in American history a trade union has fully engaged its efforts to protect its membership at the worksite, and its membership families at home, by taking the fight against meso to its most critical battleground – the laboratory. This phase of the war on meso begins with asbestos exposed persons, led by Insulators who are showing signs and symptoms of lung disorders. In this group of patients, meso must always be a consideration.
The process of diagnosing meso in 2019 usually begins with a cough, which may be dry or tinged with blood. There is often back pain and weight loss, and sometimes shortness of breath when climbing one flight of stairs. The blood-tinged mucus sometimes clears, and many people dismiss these early signs of cancer as some type of innocent virus and delay seeking medical attention.
By the time an appointment to see a primary care doctor is made, two or three months may have passed. During this first medical visit, it is important the doctor be informed of any and all exposures to asbestos, whether it be at home or at work.
This information will hopefully lead the doctor to think about diseases associated with asbestos, which may hasten proper care. A medical evaluation usually involves a number of diagnostic procedures before meso can be diagnosed. The evaluation usually includes at least two x-rays, an ultrasound test, at least two CT scans, possibly an MRI test, a lot of blood work, a cardiology evaluation, a urine test, a tube which looks at the airways from the inside (a bronchoscopy), possibly a biopsy or two and possibly the draining of fluid from around the lung. There should be at least one screening breathing test and possibly a couple of more complex breathing tests. These procedures can be time-consuming, and I have seen them take up to a year to complete, especially when the patient does not seek help at a large, multi-specialty facility.
If you find yourself in a situation of not being sure of what sort of medical help you might benefit from, please give us a call. We will help the best we can to get you to the right place. Having said all this, I want to emphasize a few things. First, a diagnosis of meso delayed for non-medical reasons is bad, and your doctor and their staff need to have some familiarity with procedures for ordering tests and making appointments. Sooner is better than later. Second, the officers and members of the Insulators are on the cutting edge of the efforts to detect meso as early as possible.
There is a general belief among meso doctors that the earlier meso is discovered, the earlier treatment can be started.
With the direction and help of General President McCourt and Secretary-Treasurer Revard, the Insulators have joined hands with the Research Department at Ascension Hospital in Michigan, Owlstone Medical from Cambridge, England and faculty from Michigan State University, to develop a quick and simple test designed to detect the chemicals released by a meso tumor.
In theory, it should work like a breathylyzer, and in places where this type of equipment has been tested, it does. The technology was used at the site of the World Trade Center and has been supported by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The plan, which passed institutional and ethical review, is to collect exhaled air from approximately 100 people (possibly more, possibly less, depending on the final statistics review) with meso. Exhaled air will also be collected from roughly 100 people who have x-ray evidence of thickening of the covering of the lung on both sides of the chest, which usually supports a history of asbestos exposure, but not the presence of meso. We will also draw one tube of blood in order to look for the presence of findings consistent with meso using a technology called Mesomark.
It is currently used in some settings to detect mesothelioma and in other setting to see how well chemotherapy works against meso. The test is manufactured by a company named Fujiribio, who is donating the testing to our research effort for no charge. The on-site technician who collects the exhaled air will package the sample and send it to England, where samples will be chemically and mathematically analyzed, with the hope they can determine which of the chemicals exhaled might be produced by a meso tumor. The family of chemicals under study are called “volatile organic compounds.”
The blood will be sent to a research laboratory in the U.S. and be subjected to a similar analysis. From this effort, we want to learn a few things: Does this technology and approach work? What VOC’s and VOC levels are consistent with the presence of meso? How do results compare between blood and air?
In medical research, the questions to which we seek answers usually raise more questions. Among the things I must ask you to remember is the importance of this research.
We have a clear idea of what we are looking for, but we do not know for sure, and we may discover this approach will not work. If this happens, we will have learned and move on to the next step in discovering a cure for meso. To participate in ethical, honest medical research aimed at saving lives is a holy undertaking.
If you might be interested to see if you qualify for inclusion in this study, please call 248-849-3107. We are starting in Michigan and the Central States Region because we were able to assemble all the necessary components for the undertaking of world class meso research there.