Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that differs from other minerals in its crystal development. The crystal formation of asbestos is in the form of long thin fibers. Because certain varieties do not burn, do not conduct heat or electricity and are often resistant to chemicals, they are used for making fireproof materials, electrical insulation, roofing and filters.
Its primary use is as an insulator or fire retardant, but it can also be used as a binder. Due to this versatility, asbestos can be found in many building materials. Even though the federal government placed a moratorium on the production of most asbestos products in the early 1970s, installation of these products continued through the late ’70s and even into the early ’80s. Unfortunately, this miracle fiber has been shown to be a health hazard after prolonged exposure.
Several diseases are associated with exposure to asbestos, including asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related cancers. These are serious, debilitating diseases that often end in death.
To cause disease, asbestos fibers must be inhaled into the lungs. The lung is a system of branching airways that end in tiny air sacs, call alveoli. There are about 300 million of these in the lungs. It is from these air sacs that oxygen from inhaled air enters the bloodstream. This is also where inhaled asbestos fibers do their damage. However, only those fibers within a certain size range can gain access to the lung alveoli. Fibers that can enter the lung and cause disease are too small to be visible to the naked eye.
It is not clear how asbestos fibers cause disease after they enter the lung. For each disease there is a period of latency, usually more than ten years, between first exposure to asbestos and the appearance of the disease. It is this characteristic that makes asbestos disease so insidious; exposure can continue for many years without any outward evidence of harm while disease develops silently within.
Asbestos can be harmless if left undisturbed. Unfortunately, asbestos exposure is often encountered during restoration, remodeling or repair. It’s imperative that asbestos be controlled, contained and eliminated properly
Asbestosis: Asbestosis is characterized by a fibrosis (scarring) of the lung tissue, which makes breathing difficult. The most prominent symptom is breathlessness. Early detection of asbestosis is possible by X-ray examination and lung function testing. However, the disease is irreversible and will continue to progress even after exposure is stopped. Rarely a cause of death itself, asbestosis results in an appreciable reduction in life expectancy due to deaths from related illness.
Mesothelioma: This is a rare cancer arising from the cells of the pleura (lining of the chest cavity and lungs) and the peritoneum; it is characterized by a long latency period, usually at least 15 years and sometimes more than 40. There is no effective treatment for mesothelioma. A large proportion of mesothelioma patients die within a year of diagnosis; few survive longer than five years. Although asbestos was once thought to be responsible for all mesothelioma, other causes have now been identified. Still, the chance of getting mesothelioma in the absence of asbestos exposure is considered to be extremely remote.
Lung Cancer: Unlike asbestosis and mesothelioma, lung cancer is associated with more than just asbestos exposure; there is no basic difference between lung cancer caused by asbestos and that due to other causes. In general, the risk of getting lung cancer increases with the extend of asbestos exposure, in terms of both intensity and duration. This risk is also greatly enhanced by smoking; most asbestos workers who develop lung cancer are smokers. The prognosis for persons diagnosed with lung cancer is poor. Only about one in twenty survives longer than five years after it is diagnosed.
Other Asbestos-Related Cancers: The relationship between asbestos exposure and asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer has been clearly established and is beyond argument. Several other cancers should be noted. They are: gastrointestinal cancer affecting all sites in the gastrointestinal tract (esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum) and cancer of the larynx.
Asbestos-Related Conditions: A number of less serious effects have been associated with asbestos exposure: pleural plaques, asbestos bodies and warts. Pleural plaques are areas of scarring of the pleural surfaces. In general, they are not associated with any functional abnormality and are merely an indicator of asbestos exposure. Occasionally, they can become so widespread that they restrict lung function. Asbestos bodies, also termed “ferruginous bodies”, result when asbestos fibers become coated with a substance containing protein and iron. These asbestos bodies are not harmful, and like pleural plaques, serve as evidence of asbestos exposure. Asbestos warts are harmless skin growths that occur when asbestos fibers penetrate the skin.