Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally-occurring fibrous minerals. These durable fibers are heat, fire, and chemical resistant. As a result, since the late 1800s, asbestos has been mined and used in construction, shipbuilding, and a number of other industries.
In recent decades, legislation has banned or limited asbestos usage, but it is still prevalent in older buildings, ships, and some materials and products. It is important to be aware of the dangers of asbestos and do your best to avoid asbestos exposure.
Dangers of Asbestos
The Environmental Protection Agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the United States Department of Health and Human Services all recognize asbestos as a known human carcinogen. Asbestos fibers are small and sharp. When they are released into the air as dust, they are easy to inhale or swallow. If you do not expel them through coughing or your mucus, they lodge in your lungs or abdomen, leading to inflammation and scarring. Three major diseases are associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestosis is a non-cancerous disease that scars lung tissue, making it difficult to breathe. Lung cancer creates tumors in the lungs that obstruct air passages. Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive form of cancer that affects the mesothelium, the tissue that lines your lungs, abdomen, and other organs.
Risk Factors for Asbestos-Related Diseases
Your risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases increases with the number of fibers you inhale. Small amounts are generally not dangerous. People most at risk are those whose jobs regularly expose them to asbestos. These occupations include construction, shipbuilding, demolition workers, asbestos removal specialists, firefighters, and automobile mechanics. Sailors who worked on Navy ships prior to the 1980s are at particular risk. Families of asbestos workers are also in danger, as workers can carry asbestos fibers home on their skin or in their clothes. Those who live or work in older buildings built with asbestos materials can also be at risk if the buildings are not well maintained and have been allowed to deteriorate, or if renovation has been undertaken without sufficient safety precautions. Smoking greatly exacerbates the danger of asbestos exposure.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Asbestos-Related Diseases
Sometimes symptoms of asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, take decades to manifest themselves so that when they appear, they are mistaken for other ailments. They include shortness of breath, persistent coughing, chest pain, fatigue, unexpected weight loss, or swelling of the neck, face, or abdomen. If you show any of these symptoms and you have a past history of asbestos exposure, you should see your doctor right away for a checkup. To diagnose asbestos-related diseases, a thorough physical exam is the first step, followed by an imaging test such as an x-ray or a CT scan. A definitive diagnosis, however, usually involves a biopsy of the affected tissue.
Treatment of Asbestos-Related Diseases
Treatment of asbestos-related diseases depends on which disease you are diagnosed with and how far the disease has progressed. Because symptoms are slow in appearing, asbestos-related diseases are difficult to treat because they are often in advanced stages by the time they are diagnosed. Possible treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
This article was contributed on behalf of Shrader & Associates, LLP.