Asbestos is the name for several silicate compounds that have a natural form of long, thin fibers. There are 6 minerals classed as asbestos in the United States, all of which are known to cause cancer, and other significant health problems.
Asbestos has a unique property of being easily formed and manipulated, and being resistant to fire, heat, cold and acids. For this reason it has been used for hundreds of years, even being woven into fire proof clothing. With the coming of the industrial age, asbestos found a number of uses, especially in construction, where it’s insulating abilities was extremely valuable.
Unfortunately, that value led many companies to ignore the known health risks of working with asbestos. It is estimated that from ship building alone in the US 100,000 people have or will die from asbestos exposure.
Today there are regulations when dealing with asbestos requiring workers to wear protective clothing, goggles and masks to avoid or reduce exposure to asbestos, and asbestos is being replaced in construction and other industries with safer alternatives.
Who is at risk of asbestos exposure?
Asbestos was used to make pipe fittings, electrical insulation, drywall and other construction materials, as well as brake pads and fittings for vehicles. Plumbers, electricians, demolition workers, workers rehabilitating and repairing old builders can all be exposed to asbestos through their work on buildings constructed between the late 1800s and the 1970s. Mechanics and vehicle enthusiasts can be exposed to working on or refurbishing older vehicles.
Additionally, anyone who worked in mining or manufacturing asbestos, and anyone who lives in a town where asbestos was mined or asbestos factories were running may have been exposed.
Effects of Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos exposure can lead to a variety of medical problems, mostly effecting the lungs. The more exposure a person has had, the more likely they are to develop asbestos related health problems. Smoking increases the risk of these problems.
Mesothelioma – also known as ‘asbestos cancer’, mesothelioma develops in the lining around the lungs, heart or abdomen. Mesothelioma will often not develop until decades after exposure. It has been estimated that 14 out of 1000 people with long term asbestos exposure will develop mesothelioma.
Lung Cancer – by far the most common result of asbestos exposure is lung cancer. People with long term exposure to asbestos are more likely to develop lung cancer then people who have not been exposed to asbestos.
Asbestosis – this non-cancer disease of the lungs is directly caused by the damage asbestos does when it is inhaled. As the damage from asbestos fibers heal, scar tissue is formed in the lungs. Over time, if enough scar tissue forms, it will interfere with the transfer of oxygen to the blood. Asbestosis symptoms include a crackling sound in the lungs when breathing and shortness of breath. There is no cure at this time.
Precautions when dealing with asbestos exposure
Because of the dangers posed by asbestos, it is important for anyone who might be exposed to asbestos to protect themselves. If you believe you may be living in a building with asbestos, you can contact local health department or a certified lab to test for asbestos. In general, as long as asbestos containing materials are undamaged and not disturbed, there is no reason for concern, but when doing repairs or renovations, use masks and other protective gear, and shower and change clothing when you are done, to avoid second hand exposure.