Why is asbestos dangerous?

Since it’s discovery asbestos was considered to be a ‘wonder’ material because of its many useful characteristics, including its resistance to heat and fire, and fibres that were easy to fabricate into cloth and other products.

In the industrial era the usage of asbestos grew significantly and was used in a wide variety of applications. Until the year 2000 it was a component in many materials used in construction, from the floor tiles to the shingles on the roof. However, beginning in the 1920s the evidence began to build that the inhalation of asbestos fibres could lead to serious damage to the lungs, and with excessive exposure, even death.

Beginning in the 1960s the use of the most dangerous materials containing asbestos was starting to be phased out. The complete ban on asbestos products in the UK came into effect in 1999, but the effects of the widespread usage in the past still result in nearly 5000 deaths per year due to asbestos-related illness. Even though asbestos is no longer used, it can take a long time to develop the health issues related to asbestos inhalation.

Asbestos has been classified as a known carcinogen, and when the fibres are inhaled it may lead to an increased risk of cancer. Most often these cancers are of the lungs, with a form called mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the thin membranes lining the chest and abdomen being the most common. There is also evidence that asbestos exposure can lead to colorectal and gastrointestinal cancers, and a higher risk of developing cancers of the throat, esophagus, kidneys, and gallbladder.

Symptoms of Asbestos-related Disease

Issues with the respiratory tract are the most common indication of asbestos exposure. Symptoms vary depending on the health issue.

  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent cough that produces mucus and gets worse over time
  • Blood in the fluid (called sputum) that is coughed up from the lungs
  • Rattling (or clicking) noises from the lungs when inhaling
  • Tightness or pain in the chest
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Difficulty swallowing

Asbestos Related Disease

Exposure to asbestos and inhalation of the fibre can lead to various problems in the respiratory tract, from mild and non-malignant, to severe and life threatening. The risk and the level of severity are determined by the type of asbestos and the levels of exposure.

Described here are the main diseases that can result from the inhalation of asbestos fibers.

Mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer where cancer cells begin to form in the linings of the chest or abdomen. In the chest the malignant cells are found in the external lining of the lungs (called the pleura), and in the lining of the lower digestive tract (called the peritoneum).

Because the symptoms of the disease are similar to other ailments it can be difficult to make a correct diagnosis. The symptoms appear after the disease has reached an advanced stage, and because of this mesothelioma is almost always fatal, with most deaths occurring within 12 months of being diagnosed. There is no known cure, but in some cases there are treatments such as chemotherapy and surgery that can increase life expectancy.

Asbestos Related Lung Cancers

In addition to mesothelioma there are other asbestos-related lung cancers that are not diagnosed as mesothelioma, but are very similar to lung cancer caused by tobacco smoking. Government statistics suggest that mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancers occur at similar rates.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. This results in scarring and inflammation of the tissue of the lungs. This scarring can lead to symptoms as mild as shortness of breath, but severe cases can lead to respiratory failure.

While there is no known cure for asbestosis, there are treatments available such as oxygen therapy that can make it easier for the patient to breathe. There are also physiotherapy treatments that can help dislodge and remove secretions from the lungs. Depending on the condition of the lungs, other health conditions, and the levels of exposure the outlook for treatment can vary greatly. In mild cases the condition does not worsen or worsens slowly, but in severe cases there can be a significant strain on the patient’s health and the risk is increased for developing other life threatening conditions.

Pleural Thickening

Pleural thickening is a lung disease caused by the prolonged exposure to and inhalation of asbestos fibres, where the pleura (the external lining of the lungs) becomes scarred, calcified, or thickened. This leads to the symptoms of shortness of breath, tightness of the chest, and in some cases, significantly reduced lung function.

Pleural thickening is irreversible, but there are treatments available to provide relief from the symptoms, such as bronchodilators and other medicines. In cases where there is severe impairment to breathing there is a surgical procedure called a pleurectomy to remove the thickened pleura.

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