What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous mineral with heat-resistant, fire-resistant and insulating properties. These and other qualities have made it a favored building and manufacturing material for hundreds of years. It has been used in everything from insulation and automobile brake pads, to paint and floor tiles, to cement and plastics.
When materials made with asbestos begin to deteriorate or are broken open, the asbestos fibers become airborne and can be easily inhaled or swallowed. The mining of and manufacturing with asbestos also results in fibers becoming airborne and creating a dust which can be inhaled as well.
Unfortunately, while suspicions began as early as the late 19th century that asbestos posed serious health concerns, it was not until the 1970s in the United States that sufficient evidence surfaced to result in banning its use in certain products and limiting it in others.
Asbestos Exposure and Health Risks
When working with asbestos-containing materials, the disruption of the asbestos fibers can result in them becoming airborne. The asbestos fibers are then easily inhaled by any in the area. When the fibers are inhaled, they travel into the lungs and settle there. The same properties that make them durable and ideal for construction materials also, unfortunately, makes them nearly impossible for your body to naturally process and eradicate. As a result, the fibers can continue to gather and accumulate in a person’s lungs over time.
As they settle and lodge into the tissue of the lungs, they can cause chronic inflammation and scarring, which leads to potentially serious health problems. However, because the damage develops over a period of time after the asbestos first lodges in the lungs, most asbestos-related diseases take 15-50 years from first exposure to onset.
Not only are those working directly with asbestos or asbestos-containing materials at risk for inhaling fibers, but also so are their family members, as they bring the fibers home on their clothes, shoes, hair, and skin.
If you have been exposed to asbestos, there are, unfortunately, a variety of risks. Your lungs are the primary concern, though other areas are at risk as well.
The most common health risks are:
- Development of scar tissue and inflammation in the tissue lining the chest cavity and lungs, resulting in coughing, shortness of breath, heaviness in the chest, etc.
- Asbestosis—a lung disease where inflammation causes coughing, shortness of breath, and permanent damage to the lungs
- Pleural disorders such as pleural plaque (affecting the membrane around the lung), pleural effusions (collection of excessive fluid between tissue layers lining the lungs and the chest cavity), and pleural thickening
- Lung cancers like adenocarcinoma
- Mesothelioma—cancer of the lining of the lung (pleural), abdominal (peritoneal), or heart (pericardial) cavities
Besides the above more commonly known and severe health risks associated with asbestos exposure, studies have also suggested the following as potential risks as well:
- Increased risk and frequency of laryngitis
- Cancer of the larynx
- Cancer of the ovaries
- Possible immune system suppression and autoimmune disorders
While asbestos is naturally occurring in many soils and environments, and while many homes and buildings contain asbestos-laden materials, the average person is not at risk for asbestos exposure of consequence. The most commonplace of exposure to dangerous levels of asbestos is in specific industries.
High-Risk Asbestos Exposure Occupations
Unfortunately, due to the wide range of products made with asbestos, there are many occupations that pose a high risk for dangerous asbestos exposure.
Occupations that both OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) list as having an increased risk of asbestos exposure include:
- Asbestos Mining, Processing, and Manufacturing
- Asbestos Abatement
- Demolition and Construction
- Car Mechanics
- Boat Marinas
- Ship Builders
- Cement Workers
- Sheet Metal Workers
- Waste Workers
- Those working with insulation (manufacturers, installers, construction or heating/air)
- Custodial workers when exposed to deteriorating materials containing asbestos
In the U.S., newer laws and regulations have been enacted to ensure safer work-environments and healthier handling practices. However, for those who were in the workforce before these regulations, the risk of asbestos exposure and consequential disease is extremely high. Additionally, for anyone handling building materials from before the 1980s, the risk for new asbestos exposure is also high if they do not practice safe handling and removal procedures.
Worksites that pose the greatest risk of exposure to asbestos fibers include:
- Asbestos Mines
- Demolition sites
- Construction and renovation sites of older buildings
- Mechanic shops
- Power, chemical and industrial plants
- Structures built before the 1980s with decay or broken/compromised materials
Materials with the highest levels of asbestos and therefore posing the greatest risk for asbestos exposure include:
- Wall insulation
- Ceiling Tiles
- Floor Tiles
- Talcum powder
- Auto parts: brake pads, hood liners, clutches, valves, and gaskets
Though regulations are in place preventing newly developed products from containing asbestos, materials in existence before the late 1980s are still allowed to be manufactured with asbestos.
Asbestos Exposure Types
In general, studies seem to suggest that the level of a person’s risk does depend on their exposure. More studies are suggesting that the type of asbestos fiber a person is exposed to can play a role in how high their risk may be. There are two main types of asbestos fibers used in products: chrysotile (longer, serpentine fibers) and amphibole (short, straight, needle-like).
The chemical makeup of amphibole fibers makes them impossible for the body to naturally digest and remove. It also gives them a much longer half-life than chrysotile fibers, allowing them to last 500 to infinity number of days. Amphibole asbestos fibers cause significantly more irritation and last much longer in the body. Thus, exposure to amphibole asbestos poses a much greater health risk than exposure to chrysotile. But exposure to chrysotile can still be dangerous.
Besides the type of asbestos fiber, a person’s risk level can also depend on:
- The concentration of asbestos
- The length of time they were exposed
- The frequency of their exposure
Those who were exposed to a higher concentration of asbestos for a longer period or who were exposed to asbestos on multiple occasions seem to have a higher risk for asbestos-related diseases than those exposed to lower concentrations for a brief period or on one occasion. However, it has been determined that there really is no safe level of asbestos exposure. This is illustrated by the fact that there are in fact two levels of exposure:
Primary exposure is when a person comes into direct contact with the asbestos fibers or asbestos-containing materials. Through handling or being near the asbestos-laden product, the individual inhales freed asbestos fibers.
Secondary asbestos exposure is when an individual gets exposed to asbestos through a person who encountered the asbestos directly. For instance, when a demolition worker goes home, his clothes and hair could be covered in asbestos fibers. When he comes into contact with family members, takes his clothes off, or combs his hair, the asbestos fibers become airborne in his home, and his family members are now exposed and can inhale the fibers.
Many women and children were exposed to asbestos through this secondary means and eventually developed serious asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma. The unfortunate reality is that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. There are individuals who experienced significant levels of exposure who never developed asbestos-related diseases and those who encountered asbestos briefly on a single occasion and suffered a from a serious disease as a consequence.
Asbestos and Mesothelioma
Of the potential health risks resulting from asbestos exposure, mesothelioma is the most lethal and the least common. To date, asbestos represents the only known cause of mesothelioma, and the disease has impacted both individuals with primary and secondary asbestos exposure.
Studies indicate that those with the greatest risk of mesothelioma are those who experienced higher levels of exposure and especially those exposed to amphibole asbestos fibers, which last longer in the body and result in higher irritation and damage.
The stages of mesothelioma development are as follows:
- Asbestos fibers are inhaled and lodge into the pleural or pericardial; fibers that are coughed up and then swallowed in saliva can then travel down and lodge in the peritoneal.
- Over time, the fibers cause increased inflammation and scarring and disrupt healthy cell development.
- Stage 1 mesothelioma develops when a tumor develops in the lining around the site of asbestos irritation. Patients rarely discover the cancer this early as there are rarely symptoms. If caught at this stage, life expectancy and treatment options are much better
- Stage 2 mesothelioma is when the tumors start to spread to other types of lung tissue or to the diaphragm. Minor symptoms may occur during this time but are often mistaken for pneumonia or flu. If caught at this stage, there are still many treatment options and a better life expectancy.
- Stage 3 mesothelioma is when cancer spreads to other tissues, lymph nodes and organs in the same area as the origin site. At this point, patients may experience chest pain, difficulty breathing, or digestive and abdominal pain depending on the location. At this point, the cancer is often too advanced and aggressive for most treatments.
- Stage 4 mesothelioma is when cancer has hit the bloodstream and spread throughout the body, becoming present in the brain, bones, liver, etc. Life expectancy is often less than a year, and care options are limited to palliative care.
If you have been exposed to asbestos in the past and are suffering any symptoms, it is vital that you make your doctor aware of your asbestos exposure. Alerting your doctor early may help prevent or slow early progression of mesothelioma and help ensure an accurate diagnosis. For more information on asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, contact our Patient Advocates today.