Asbestos is an inherently occurring mineral used in various industries due to its strength and chemical and heat resistance. However, asbestos exposure can cause various health problems, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates about 300 million pounds of asbestos in the United States alone. The EPA also estimates that more than 100 million people have been exposed to asbestos.
In addition, there are approximately 1,000 new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed each year in the United States. Mesothelioma is rare cancer that affects the lining of organs like the lungs and the heart. In 2010, it was expected that more than 4,500 people would die from this disease.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers must provide asbestos-handling workers with training on how to avoid being exposed to it, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
OSHA also recommends that employees wear protective clothing when working with asbestos. These recommendations include:
- Covering all skin surfaces with waterproof gloves;
- Wearing boots made of rubber or other non-leather material;
- Using respirators that filter out dust particles and protect against inhaling asbestos fibers; and
- Ensuring that any materials containing asbestos are properly labeled.
However, many workers still become ill due to occupational asbestos exposure due to these precautions. For example, an employee may unknowingly breathe in small amounts of asbestos during his daily activities.
If the worker does not know he is breathing in asbestos, he could continue to work without knowing that he is putting himself at risk of developing serious diseases. Therefore, there remains a need for improved methods of detecting asbestos contamination.
Asbestos and Cancer Risk
A number of studies suggest that exposure to asbestos increases the risk of contracting various cancers. One study found that men who worked with asbestos had a higher mortality rate from lung cancer than those who did not work with asbestos. Another study showed that asbestos was linked to increased risks of stomach, colon, prostate, and bladder cancer among men.
What are the health effects of asbestos?
There are two main forms of asbestos—chrysotile and crocidolite. Both chrysotile and crocidolite contain long fibers that are easily airborne.
These fibers can enter the body through the nose, mouth, or eyes when inhaled. Once inside the body, the fibers can lodge in the lungs and cause inflammation, which leads to scarring and blockages. Over time, this scarring can lead to respiratory illnesses.
In addition to causing respiratory illness, asbestos causes cancer. Studies show that exposure to asbestos increases a person’s chances of developing lung cancer by up to 50 percent. Asbestos exposure can also increase a person’s risk of developing other types of cancer, including stomach, colon, and rectal cancer.
How can I reduce my asbestos exposure?
If you work around asbestos, take steps to keep yourself safe. Wear appropriate personal protective equipment, including coveralls, masks, goggles, and gloves. Avoid breathing in dust. Do not use power tools near asbestos products. Keep your hands away from open flames. Take proper safety measures when handling asbestos products.
If you live near areas where asbestos has been used, check the labels on buildings and vehicles to determine if they contain asbestos. Contact local authorities about potential asbestos problems.
What is the risk of lung cancer from working with asbestos?
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that between 5 million and 15 million people have been exposed to asbestos.
NIOSH researchers estimate that approximately 3,000 deaths each year are caused by workplace exposures to asbestos. Asbestos-related lung disease costs employers more than $1 billion annually.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), most cases of mesothelioma develop after 20 years of asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that starts in the lining of the chest cavity and spreads throughout the body. It primarily affects older adults, particularly me.
What is mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a cancer that begins in the cells that cover the lungs, abdomen, heart, and diaphragm. This cancer spreads quickly throughout the body. Mesotheliomas develop slowly and often do not produce symptoms until they reach advanced stages. In some cases, mesothelioma may be diagnosed only after death.
Who gets mesothelioma, and how does it spread?
Most cases of mesothelium cancer start as a tumor on the surface of the pleura, the thin membrane that lines the lungs. The tumors grow into the underlying tissue, forming a hard mass called a plaque. Plaques tend to stay in one place and rarely move unless someone moves them.
They can become infected or bleed. If the infection or bleeding becomes severe, the plaques can break off and travel through the bloodstream to other body parts. Mesothelial cancers can also spread through lymphatic vessels.
When should I see a doctor about possible asbestos exposure?
If you think you might have been exposed to asbestos, talk to your family physician or contact your state occupational health agency. You may need tests to determine whether you have developed any asbestos-caused diseases. You will probably need surgery to remove the diseased area if you have mesothelioma. After removing the affected part of your body, doctors will try to treat the rest of your body with chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
How can I protect myself against asbestos?
You can reduce your chances of developing asbestos-related diseases by taking these precautions:
Wear protective clothing such as coveralls, boots, and gloves whenever working with asbestos.
Use a respirator when working with asbestos. A respirator filters air so you won’t breathe in asbestos fibers. Make sure the filter fits tightly.
What occupations could be exposed to asbestos?
Asbestos was used in building materials before its dangers were known. Some jobs that could expose workers to asbestos include:
- Construction laborers
- Textile mill workers
- Transportation workers
- Wallboard installers
Different forms of asbestos material, different risk levels
There are three main types of asbestos: chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite. Each has a different risk level based upon the amount of time spent breathing dust containing the substance.
This is the most common form of asbestos found today. Most people who work with this kind of asbestos will never get sick.
Amosite is less likely than chrysotile to cause lung problems. However, if you inhale large amounts of amosite over many years, it may increase your chance of getting lung disease.
Crocidolite is more dangerous than chrysotile or amosite because it causes lung scarring. It is very rare for people to contract lung cancer from crocidolite exposure.
The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulates workplace exposures to all types of asbestos. OSHA requires employers to keep records of their employees’ asbestos exposures. Employers must report those exposures to OSHA within 30 days after they occur.
Is it legal to use asbestos in building material?
Yes. As long as an employer follows safety rules and provides proper training, it’s legal to use asbestos in construction projects.
What is the best way to dispose of old asbestos products?
Dispose of any unused asbestos products properly. For example, don’t throw them away in trash cans or dumpsters. Instead, take them to local hazardous waste facilities where they will be recycled into new products.
Are there other ways to prevent asbestos exposure?
Yes. Here are some tips on how to avoid asbestos exposure:
Keep your home and yard free of loose asbestos debris.
Don’t touch or move items made of asbestos without wearing appropriate protection.
Never use household cleaners or detergents that contain asbestos.
Can damage from asbestos be reversed?
No. Once exposed to asbestos, it’s too late to reverse the damage.
How can I find out my exposure history?
If you have ever worked with asbestos, ask your doctor for a medical examination. Your doctor should also check your family’s medical history. You may want to talk to your family members about their own experiences with asbestos.
Call your doctor if you’re not sure whether you’ve been exposed to or had contact with asbestos. They can help you determine what tests might be needed to confirm your exposure.
Do I need to wear special clothing when working around asbestos?
Yes. When working with asbestos, always wear protective equipment such as gloves, masks, eye goggles, aprons, boots, and shoes. If you’re unsure whether you need certain protective gear, ask your supervisor or manager.
What do I need to know about asbestos-related diseases?
Asbestos-related diseases include mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. Mesothelioma is a deadly type of cancer caused by asbestos fibers. Lung cancer is another serious problem caused by asbestos. The symptoms of both conditions usually appear several years after asbestos exposure has ended.
Asbestosis is a chronic lung condition that results from repeated inhalation of small particles of asbestos. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, chest tightness, fatigue, weight loss, and fever. Asbestosis often develops slowly and doesn’t cause pain until later stages.
What should I ask my doctor?
Your doctor can tell if you’ve been exposed to harmful levels of asbestos. Ask them to recommend testing to see if you have any signs of these diseases. Also, ask your doctor to explain the risks of asbestos exposure and suggest ways to protect yourself.