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Asbestos

Issue: Minerals

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The Health Risks Associated with Asbestos

By Tiffany Anthony

Because asbestos fiber bundles break easily into small dust particles, they can attach to clothing and skin, and can be easily inhaled or swallowed. This exposure can cause serious health problems.

Asbestos is a name given to naturally occurring fibrous bundles of minerals. These minerals can be separated into thin threads and are not affected by heat or chemicals and are not electricity-conducting. Because of its properties, asbestos has been widely used in many commercial industries.

Types of asbestos:

* White Asbestos (chrysotile)
* Blue Asbestos (crocidolite)
* Brown Asbestos (amosite)
* Gray Asbestos (anthophyllite)

Because of its curly fibers, Chrysotile asbestos is classified in the serpentine family of minerals. Other types of asbestos, with their rod-like fibers, are classified as amphiboles.


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The commercial use of asbestos began in North America in the late 1800’s and increased dramatically during World War II.

Asbestos was primarily used for strengthening cement and plastics, insulation, fireproofing, ceiling and floor tiles, packaging components, sound absorption, insulating boilers, steam pipes, and hot water pipes, vehicle brake shoes and clutch pads, painting, and more. With over 5,000 products containing the minerals, it’s no wonder so many people have been affected by it.

Because asbestos fiber bundles break easily into small dust particles, they can attach to clothing and skin, and can be easily inhaled or swallowed. This exposure can cause serious health problems – but not for everyone exposed. People who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis - in a job where they work directly with the material or through environmental contact for a length of time.



Conditions Caused by Asbestos Exposure

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a chronic lung ailment - pulmonary fibrosis caused by asbestos fibers. It develops after years of exposure to the minerals. After the disease becomes well established, it can produce shortness of breath, coughing, and permanent lung damage.

Asbestosis depends on the frequency and intensity of exposure to asbestos fibers.

Cancer

Certain types of cancers including lung, larynx, oropharynx, gastrointestinal, kidney, and others.

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer which occurs when malignant cancer cells form in the thin membranes lining the lungs (pleura,) and/or the peritoneum, which encapsulates the abdominal organs.

One of the largest causes of malignant mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Many people with the disease have lived or worked where asbestos was inhaled or swallowed or have lived or worked closely with someone who has been near it. Long after exposure, the cancer occurs.

Many people do not know that they have mesothelioma until they present to their physician with pain under the rib cage; difficulty breathing; pain, swelling, or lumps in the abdomen; and weight loss with no explanation.

Sometimes the symptoms can be brought on by fluid which has collected around the lung or abdomen due to the disease.



The prognosis for those who are diagnosed with mesothelioma varies. Treatment options and recovery depend on the stage of the illness, size of tumor(s), the age and general health of the patient, the amount of fluid buildup in chest or abdomen, and if the illness is new or a recurrence of a past diagnosis.

Mesothelioma is not based on how much exposure one has had to asbestos. The malignant pleural tumor is not necessarily related to heavy exposure to asbestos fiber. It could be minimal exposure which has caused the disease.

Regulations

It is estimated that over 1.3 million construction and general industry employees face significant exposure to asbestos while on the job. The heaviest exposure occurs in the construction industry, especially when asbestos is being removed during renovations or demolitions.

Workers who are involved in the manufacturing of asbestos products or mechanics who perform brake and clutch repair are also likely to be exposed.

Asbestos is well recognized as a health hazard and is highly regulated. OSHA and the EPA have implemented rules to minimize exposure and risk of illness.

Resources

See OSHA’s web site for more information on government regulations.

Related Articles

Mesothelioma Cancer: A Rare but Serious Form of Cancer

Mesothelioma and Asbestos:  A Glossary of Related Terms and Definitions

Mesothelioma Rights

Related Issues

Asbestos Prevention

Asbestos Testing


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