Getting an asbestos exposure can cause several health conditions, especially diseases of the lungs. Talk to your healthcare provider about steps you need to take to protect yourself from any slow progress of the asbestos disease, if you have been exposed to asbestos through your workplace.
Brief Overview on Asbestos
A group of six naturally occurring mineral fibers are what makes up the Asbestos. The asbestos fibers are commonly known for their fire and chemical resistant properties, and their strength. These quality properties are the reason manufacturing and building industries have used asbestos to:
- Provide insulation
- Absorb sound
- Fireproof buildings, textiles and military vehicles
- Strengthen plastics and cement.
The Asbestos fibers may be seen as white, gray, brown, blue, or green. The Chrysotile (white fibers) are the commonly most used in the United States.
Products that contains the Asbestos
Asbestos has been mined in America and also used since the late 1800s. Manufacturers started using it more during the World War II. Asbestos fibers are used in thousands of products, including building products such as:
- Floor tile and adhesives
- Soundproofing materials
- Asbestos and cement shingles, siding and roofing
- Patching and joint compound
- Pipe, duct and furnace insulation.
Also, many household substances and products contain the asbestos, including:
- Some Plastics, coatings, adhesives and paints
- Automobile brake pads and linings, gaskets and clutch facings
- Embers and artificial ashes used in gas fired fireplaces
- Consumer garden products and vermiculite-containing attic insulation.
How Asbestos can affect one’s health
The Asbestos fibers are ordinarily not harmful unless they are released into the air and inhaled or ingested by individuals. When released into the air, the fibers break down into very tiny particles. It is these particles that then become airborne and people inhale them. Once inhaled, the particles collect in the lungs, causing scarring and inflammation. Several U.S health organizations have classified this asbestos as a cancer-causing substance called carcinogen.
Asbestos exposure can increase the risk of developing cancerous diseases such as:
- Lung cancer
- Cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, kidney and throat (larynx or Oropharynx)
- Mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the stomach, chest and lining of the lung
- Scarring of the lining of the lung
- Asbestosis, which causes permanent damage to the lung
- Pleural effusions, when fluid collects around the lungs.
Is the use of Asbestos in building materials legal?
The United States has passed regulations that limit the use of asbestos since the late 1970s. These regulations:
- Ban the use of asbestos in situations where it could get released into the air (example in gas fireplaces).
- Made requirement of regular inspections to be done, to ensure that asbestos materials are undamaged and intact.
- Ensured that asbestos particles are not release into the air, by establishing guidelines for its use.
Many products in use, especially buildings constructed before the regulations, still contain asbestos. However, there has been an overall decline in the use of asbestos materials in the United States.
Asbestos Exposure – Who is at risk?
Everyone naturally has some level of exposure to the asbestos. Normally, there are low level exposures in the air, soil or water. However, these low level exposures are low enough not to make people get sick.
Individuals who have worked on jobs that have direct link with asbestos have the highest risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Such occupations with high risk exposures include:
- Fabric milling
- Construction and building trades
- Shipbuilding and naval services
- Railway construction
- Building demolition
- Chemicals manufacturing
- Asbestos mining and milling
- Auto industry (Specifically, brake repair).
After the 9/11 terror attack in New York City, those who were involved in the cleanup at the site are at higher risk of developing asbestos-related diseases.
It’s usually not everyone that is exposed to Asbestos that develops an illness. Generally, it’s the longer you are being exposed, the greater your risk of getting sick with the asbestos-related illness. But still, even if you only had a brief exposure, you still stand a chance of getting sick with a disease.
There are factors that affect your risk of developing an asbestos-related disease, such as:
- How long you have constantly been exposed to the asbestos.
- The intensity of exposure you experienced with the asbestos.
- Lower risk if asbestos you got exposed to is bounded in a product (such as tiles or walls), and a higher risk if the asbestos was released into the air and inhaled (such as during drilling or sawing).
- Genetic mutations also increase the risk of developing the disease.
- Other personal risk factors, such as pre-existing lung disease, smoking, and living in poor health conditions.
Millions of Americans had been exposed to the asbestos since the 1940s, according to research done by the National Cancer Institute. The research shows that:
- About 90% of mesothelioma cases are due to asbestos exposure, and around 300 Americans annually get diagnosed with mesothelioma.
- Of all disease conditions caused by asbestos, lung cancer relating to asbestos causes the most deaths, followed by mesothelioma.
Causes of the Asbestos-related diseases
Conditions relating to asbestos are as a result of exposure to the tiny particles of asbestos fibers that then collect in the lungs, abdomen or heart, as the case may be. The longer one gets exposed to the fibers on a regular basis, and the greater the intensity of exposure, then the higher the chances of such an individual of developing a related illness condition.
Studies have shown that working closely with asbestos-containing materials and equipment is the major cause of the disease. Another set of people at risk are those who laundered clothing materials with asbestos in them, and those living in areas with high levels of airborne asbestos.
Researchers have shown that the symptoms of this disease usually do not manifest until years after constant exposure. People who develop asbestos-related diseases may go for up to 10 – 40 years without showing any symptoms. If you feel you have any of the symptoms listed, do well to see your healthcare provider for checkup and tests:
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Prolonged hoarseness
- Shortness of breath
- Significant weight loss
- Pain in the chest or abdomen
- Change in cough patterns
- Blood in the coughed-up fluid from the lungs
- Loss of appetite
- Neck or face swelling.
Tests and Diagnosis for Asbestos Exposure
You healthcare provider will normally ask you about your symptoms and asbestos exposure, in order to diagnose you at all. A physical examination will then be carried out on you, which include:
- Lab tests to measure any asbestos material in your body.
- Pulmonary function tests.
- Chest X-ray to check for any changes due to Asbestos exposure in the lungs.
After these tests are done, your healthcare provider may recommend further tests to see your lungs in more detail:
- Bronchoscopy: Passing a thin tube down you airway into your lungs in order to get detailed images.
- CT scanning.
- Lung or Pleural Biopsy: Taking a small sample of lung tissue to check for any signs of the disease.
Treatment and Management
The treatment of a patient with asbestos-related disease depends largely on how far the asbestos fibers has affected the lungs. So far, there is no “one size fits all” treatment for this. For example, if a patient has a pleural effusion (that is, fluid around the lungs), the fluid may need to be drained out. Other treatments for this include:
- Oxygen Therapy: This can help improve shortness of breath, low oxygen levels in the blood, and other breathing problems.
- Radiation Therapy, Chemotherapy or Surgery: One or all of which may be part of the treatment if the patient develops lung cancer or mesothelioma.
Ways of Prevention of Asbestos Exposure
If you have materials in good condition with asbestos contained in them in your home, it is best you leave them alone. This is because if you touch or disturb the material, the asbestos fibers may get released into the air. Have materials in your home inspected from time to time if you feel any exposure may have occurred. Materials that are left intact do not pose any risk.
On the other hand, if the materials appear to be damaged already, you should get an asbestos cleanup expert to come take samples of the material and analyze them. If the result shows that such material has asbestos in it, you will need to have it removed or replaced by experts.
The goal of repairing is to prevent asbestos fibers from getting released into the air. Do not try to do this yourself. Hire a professional to do the repair or removal, as improper handling may create more of a health risk.
Smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer in people who have been exposed to the asbestos fibers, because asbestos-related diseases affect the lungs. Therefore it is advised that people who have had asbestos exposure should take extra care not to smoke.
Asbestos fibers are generally only harmful when they get released into the air. In more recent times, asbestos used in building materials and many other products are bounded into the products. This process prevents them from getting released into the air, and there is little or no risk at all from these products. However, take care not to tear or otherwise damage or crumble the material, as this can lead directly or indirectly to the release of the asbestos fibers into the air.
Prognosis for Patients living with Asbestos-related Diseases
The outlook and prognosis for a patient depends on how far the asbestos affects the lungs. It may take year before any sign or symptom of the disease is detected. Lung or pleural scarring may not deeply affect your health, but severe scarring, Lung cancer or mesothelioma will most definitely do so. It all depends on the intensity of the condition of the patient, overall health, and other risk factors.
Is damage from Asbestos reversible?
Damage caused by asbestos to the organs of the body cannot be reversed buy treatment. Treatments for asbestos-related diseases aims to bring relieve to the body from the symptoms, treat complications related to the disease, and generally slow its progress.
In other words…
If you feel you have had asbestos exposure through your job or any other means, talk to your healthcare provider. Asbestos can cause various disease that pose serious threat to the body, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. You may not exhibit symptoms until years after constant exposure. Even if you feel well, talk to your healthcare provider so you can take necessary steps to protect yourself and reduce your health risks. And if you do have an asbestos-related health condition, your healthcare provider will help you get the treatment you need for your case.