Smithsonian Museum Embattled With Employee Over Asbestos Exposure

The Smithsonian is one of our nation’s most treasured museums. It is also one of the countless buildings in the country that was built with asbestos-containing materials. And though the presence of such hazardous materials has been known for more than 17 years, upper management has been accused of failing to raise awareness and follow proper maintenance procedures in accordance with OSHA regulations.

The accusations come largely from Richard Pullman, a maintenance worker and lighting specialist who has worked at the museum for more than 27 years. In a 2008 employee safety meeting, Pullman was shocked to learn that asbestos was present in walls throughout the museum. These walls are the same ones that Pullman has been drilling into, cutting and sanding for more than two decades.

This was alarming to Pullman, and rightly so. Acts such as these that cause asbestos particles to become airborne and inhaled dramatically increase the risk of lung diseases such as mesothelioma. Following the meeting, Pullman visited a lung specialist (he had already been experiencing shortness of breath) and the doctor diagnosed him with asbestosis.

Shortly after the safety meeting, Pullman also filed federal workplace safety complaints with OSHA regarding failures of the museum to notify, train and monitor employees regarding the risks of asbestos at the museum. In a response sent to The Washington Post, OSHA indicated that the museum should have “cordoned off the area, posted warning signs, and used an impermeable dropcloth, wet methods and local ventilation when working on the walls.”

Despite these incriminating facts, the Smithsonian claims no wrongdoing. Several tests performed at the museum have indicated that asbestos levels at the museum are well below legal limits. However, a 1992 asbestos testing commissioned by the Smithsonian found between 1 and 5 percent asbestos in several walls – a level that mandates notification and complex cleanup requirements under OSHA regulations. A recent independent study commissioned by Pullman himself seems to confirm this test, resulting in chrysolite levels of as much as 13.7 percent.

The employee and the museum are now embittered over the matter. Pullman has filed several worker compensation claims, but has so far been denied. And though the Smithsonian has taken great strides in removing asbestos dust and other hazardous products from the museum, they continue to deny the fact that regulations were broken or Pullman was unnecessarily placed at risk.

It should be noted that visitors to the museum are likely in no danger of unhealthy asbestos exposure. The material is only toxic when airborne, making maintenance workers the most likely to be affected. For more information on the story, please refer to the in-depth article at the Washington Post.

Esophageal Stents As a Palliative Care Measure for Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma, a cancer that invades the wall lining of the lungs and other internal organs, is a particularly difficult type of cancer to treat. Almost universally related to the inhalation of asbestos particles, treatment of advanced stages of the disease is largely palliative. Palliative health care refers to the focus of relieving symptoms and pain as opposed to taking steps to eliminate the illness.

In many advanced cases of mesothelioma, patients experience a difficulty swallowing. The medical term for such a symptom is dysphagia. As the mesothelioma tumor spreads from the lungs to the esophagus, the tumor can reduce the diameter of the air pathway. In some cases, this reduced ability to breath and swallow is the direct cause of death.

In an effort to assuage dysphagia, prolong survival and reduce discomfort, a recent study performed at the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery in Derriford Hospital points to esophageal stents as a potential treatment.

A case report published in the January 25, 2008 Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery details the success of self-expanding esophageal stents on patience with mesothelioma. In the three patient cases discussed in the report, all three patients achieved immediate satisfactory reduction in dysphagia. However, progressive dysphagia resurfaced 1 to 6 months later. In such cases further stenting is required to open up a larger portion of the esophagus.

As dysphagia is usually an end-case symptom, patients are not expected to survive a considerable length of time as a result of the stents. However, the primary goal of the procedure is to relieve pain and improve quality of life for the patient.

Resource:

http://www.cardiothoracicsurgery.org/content/3/1/3

Making Patients Sicker May Help Them Fight Cancer

It’s clear that the human immune system is really no match for cancer. At least, this has been the conventional wisdom for quite some time. Yet, scientists know the immune system fights cancer, and therefore have hypothesized that if we can optimize our body’s defense system it could potentially be able to fight tumors. In order to do this, some researchers have suggested using infection to fight cancer.

It certainly sounds risky – infecting a cancer patient with an unrelated illness. However, studies have shown that when our bodies attack pathogens, the immune system goes into overdrive. In fact, infectious diseases, especially those that cause high fever, have been shown to successfully reduce tumor size or result in full-on remission since as early as the 1890s. During that time, a physician by the name of William B. Coley used a high-fever inducing infection called erysipelas to varying degrees of success on sarcoma patients.

Unfortunately, due to the high death risk and unstable results, Dr. Coley could never adapt the practice for wide spread use. This very problem is what stands in the way of applying infection treatment to cancer patients in the modern world.

Resource:

Healing Heat: Harnessing Infection to Fight Cancer

http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/2009/1/healing-heat/1