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Angiosarcoma of the Liver Linked to Plastics Industry

Angiosarcoma of the Liver Linked to Plastics Industry

Angiosarcoma of the liver is a rare but lethal form of this malignant and rapidly proliferating type of cancer, which can spread through the vascular and lymph systems.

Environmental contaminants have been linked to angiosarcoma of the liver, including vinyl chloride, arsenic and thorium dioxide (Thorotrast). Vinyl chloride is a compound used widely in the plastics industry.

A link to the plastics industry

In 1974, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on the possible connection between vinyl chloride and this cancer. The study revealed that four employees of the B.F. Goodrich plant near Louisville, Kentucky, developed the disease between 1967 and 1973. They were employed in the polyvinyl chloride polymerization section of the plant. The four men had each worked for at least 14 years in that division before becoming ill.

Because angiosarcoma of the liver is such a rare event, a cluster of four at the same plant raised the possibility of an environmental contaminate causing the disease.

A study in Great Britain has linked vinyl chloride to this liver cancer as well. The Imperial College School of Medicine at St. Mary’s London diagnosed nine cases in vinyl chloride workers and one case in a resident living within six miles of the factory.

Vinyl chloride is essential to the production of PVC plastic, which is used in plumbing products, appliances, vinyl siding, raincoats and seat covers. Because of health and environmental concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency, beginning in 2011, will start regulating the variety of toxins emitted from PVC plants. This includes vinyl chloride.

A rare but deadly cancer

About 25 cases of angiosarcoma of the liver occur in the United States each year. The aggressive nature of the cancer in this critical organ makes it especially dangerous.

The liver plays a key role in metabolism and digestion. It neutralizes harmful substances in the blood, secretes bile for the metabolism of fats, synthesizes plasma proteins, and stores glycogen, minerals and vitamins.

Symptoms of angiosarcoma of the liver may be difficult to distinguish from other types of liver disease. They may include jaundice, fatigue, an enlarged liver, weight loss, nausea, vomiting and bleeding in the peritoneal cavity.

Because these symptoms overlap with other diseases and because cancer can emerge decades after exposure to vinyl chloride, diagnosing angiosarcoma of the liver can be challenging. Conventional liver function tests may not be sensitive enough to detect the cancer in its earliest stages. An MRI is the preferred method for diagnosis. It provides the most accurate image of the cancer’s size, placement and growth.

Treatment options are limited and contingent on how far the cancer has advanced. When the tumor is limited to a single lobe of the liver, surgery can be considered. Chemotherapy can shrink the tumor and improve liver function. These approaches typically extend a patient’s lifespan by several months.