According to statistics, asbestos causes approximately 12000-15000 deaths each year in the U.S. A large number of this constitutes of workers whose deaths are as a result of past exposure. These are people who have previously worked in industries involved in the making and installation of asbestos products as well as asbestos mining or milling industries. Other affected individuals are from the immediate families of these workers.
Asbestos has been mined and used commercially in North America since the late 1800s. Its use increased greatly during World War II. Since then, asbestos has been used in many industries.
Asbestos is one of the most dangerous materials in the world. It commonly enters the body in the form of minute fibers through breathing. Inhaling a large amount of these fibers over a long period of time increases your risk of developing chronic illnesses such as lung cancer, Mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Your risk of contracting these diseases increases with the amount of fibers inhaled and also if you are a smoker.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is basically a group of minerals that are available naturally as bundles of fibers that can be easily separated into fine and durable threads. These fibers possess powerful properties such as heat, fire, and chemical resistance, and are also non-conductors of electricity. It was previously nicknames as the “miracle mineral” due to these properties. As a result, asbestos was widely used in many industrial, commercial, and construction sectors.
Chemically, asbestos minerals are silicate compounds, meaning they contain atoms of silicon and oxygen in their molecular structure.
Some of its common uses were;
- Vehicle transmission components such as clutches
- Industrial heating systems and furnaces
- Car and truck brakes
- Cement and plaster
- Floor and ceiling tiles
- Building insulation
- House siding
The Health Hazards of Exposure to Asbestos
As mentioned earlier, asbestos is a very dangerous material. However, these materials only pose a health hazard when disturbed or damaged where the fibers are released into the air. When breathed in, these tiny fibers get trapped in the lungs as they accumulate over extended periods, causing extensive scarring and inflammation. This as a result affects breathing and lead to serious health complications.
You may be exposed to asbestos in your home, workplace, or your community. However, research shows that simply working or living in a building containing asbestos does not pose a health risk as long as it remains in good condition, in that it’s not damaged or disturbed.
N.B.: Asbestos related diseases do not develop immediately after exposure. They actually take many years to develop and cause death. Occasional exposure to the fibers is associated with low health risk.
Now let’s have a look at some of the major health risks associated with exposure to asbestos.
1. Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer
Asbestos-related lung cancer basically looks the same as lung cancer caused by other factors such as smoking. It’s one of the major causes of asbestos-related deaths. Cigarette smoking combined with asbestos exposure significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer compared to those who have only been exposure to asbestos.
Persistent chest pains, shortness of breath, anemia, and hoarseness are some of the common symptoms of asbestos-related lung cancer.
The combination of asbestos exposure and smoking significantly increases the risk for developing lung cancer.
Asbestosis is a very serious and aggressive lung disease that leads to intense respiratory impairment and diseases such as lung cancer. The disease causes the formation of scar-like tissue in the lung (also known as pulmonary fibrosis). Pulmonary fibrosis is known to reduce the elasticity of the lungs, which as a result makes it harder to breathe.
The disease develops several years after exposure.
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that develops in the outer lining of the lungs (pleura), abdomen (peritoneum), and chest. Almost all cases of mesothelioma are directly related to asbestos exposure.
The disease takes a very long time to show symptoms, usually 20-50 years. Common symptoms include shortness of breath, pain under the rib cage, difficulty breathing, pain or swelling in the abdomen, including others.
By the time it is diagnosed, mesothelioma is usually fatal.
4. Pleural Thickening
Pleural thickening is often caused by heavy exposure to asbestos where pleural, the thin lining of the lungs becomes thick and swells. With time, the lung becomes squeezed, causing trouble breathing, shortness of breath, and chest discomforts.
5. Other Asbestos Health Risks
Research indicates that ingesting asbestos increases the risk of developing stomach, colon, larynx, esophagus, oral cavity, and kidney cancers. Asbestos has also been found to compromise the immune function of workers with asbestosis.
Some studies have shown an increased risk for esophageal cancer in those exposed to asbestos, but such results are limited and need further investigation.
Symptoms of Being Exposed to Asbestos
The severity and frequency of asbestos symptoms may vary among different patients at the time of diagnosis. However, the most common symptoms of asbestos exposure include;
- Chest pains
- Difficulty breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Unintended weight loss
- General body weakness
- Lumps in the abdomen
- Formation of blood clots
- Pain or swelling in the abdomen
How to Reduce the Risk of Asbestos Exposure?
As stated earlier, asbestos-containing products/materials do not pose any health risk unless they are disturbed or damaged. All the same, it’s advisable to be cautious so as to reduce your risk of exposure.
If you work in construction or maintenance, it’s important to wear protective gear and clothing if you discover asbestos in the work area. Avoid rubbing, scraping, cutting, and brushing to avoid triggering the release of fibers. You can as well hire a reputable asbestos removal specialist to completely eliminate it before beginning the work.
At home, avoid your exposure to asbestos by hiring a professional asbestos removal specialist to do demolitions, renovations, and additions. Also, ensure that all holes and cracks in the room ceilings are fully sealed and that caulking around the attic hatch and light fixtures is applied to prevent the insulation from falling through. All baseboards, electrical outlets, and window and door frames should as well be fully sealed.
In cars, asbestos is usually found on various transmission and brake parts. Therefore, when performing car maintenance, you can significantly reduce your risk of exposure by calling an asbestos specialist to inspect these parts. Also, it’s advisable to have your clutch or brakes serviced at a reputable service provider.
Although the use of asbestos in the industrial, construction, and commercial sectors has greatly reduced, it’s still possible to become exposed to these dangerous fibers from products and buildings built years back. And now that you’re aware of the health risks involved, it’s important to get tested early to avoid serious complications. Also use these necessary measures to protect yourself and your family from asbestos exposure.