Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure
When microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they can become trapped in the body’s respiratory or digestive tract. The body can get rid of some asbestos fibers, but many fibers become stuck permanently.
No level of asbestos exposure is considered safe. However, most problems arise after years of repeated and long-term exposure to the carcinogen.
When asbestos fibers accumulate in human tissue through repeat exposure, they cause inflammation and DNA damage. Over time, this damage causes cellular changes that can lead to cancer and other diseases.
The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure multiplies the hazard, creating a greater risk to health.
Cancers caused by asbestos exposure include:
- Mesothelioma: This is a rare and incurable cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs or abdomen.
- Lung Cancer: Asbestos-related lung cancer accounts for approximately 4% of all lung cancer cases.
- Ovarian Cancer: The International Agency for Research on Cancer confirmed that asbestos causes ovarian cancer in 2012.
- Laryngeal Cancer: In 2006, the National Institutes of Health confirmed that asbestos causes laryngeal cancer.
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- Noncancerous conditions caused by asbestos include:
- Asbestosis: Inflammation and scarring of lung tissue, which prevents the lungs from expanding and relaxing normally.
- Pleural plaques: Areas of fibrous thickening of the lining around the lungs — the most common sign of asbestos exposure.
- Pleural Effusion: Buildup of fluid around the lungs that causes difficulty breathing.
- Diffuse Pleural Thickening: Extensive scarring that thickens the pleural lining of the lungs, causing chest pain and breathing issues.
- Pleurisy: Severe inflammation of the pleural lining, also known as pleuritic pain.
- Atelectasis: Inflammation and scarring that cause the pleural lining to fold in on itself, causing the lungs to underinflate.
It may take anywhere from 10 to 70 years after the initial exposure for asbestos-related diseases to develop. Asbestosis can develop in as few as 10 years. Related cancers usually take 20-50 years to develop.
Signs of asbestos-related disease include breathing difficulty, chest pain and a range of other cancer symptoms.
The EWG Action Fund estimates that asbestos-related diseases kill 12,000 to 15,000 Americans each year. This includes more than 1,000 deaths from asbestosis and around 8,000 to 10,000 lung cancer deaths.
About 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma annually, according to the American Cancer Society. Mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure.
The U.S. incidence rate of this rare disease peaked in the 1990s and has been slowly falling since. Hopefully it will continue to fall, thanks to regulations on asbestos that were implemented in the 1970s.
How Does Asbestos Exposure Happen?
Asbestos exposure happens when microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne. The toxic mineral dust can remain in the air for hours, placing anyone nearby in danger of inhaling or ingesting it.
In an ideal environment with little disturbances, it may take 48 to 72 hours for asbestos fibers to settle. If the dust is disturbed, it can easily become airborne again because it is so light.
Most people are exposed through their occupation. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used in thousands of domestic, commercial and industrial products.
Most U.S. companies stopped using asbestos in the 1980s, but asbestos-containing materials remain in millions of older buildings in the America. New asbestos products are still made in many countries around the world.
Occupations in manual labor and skilled trades present the highest risk of asbestos exposure. Workers in construction, shipyards and factories face a high likelihood of exposure on the job.
U.S. veterans were once among the most vulnerable because of the military’s past reliance on asbestos products, especially on Navy ships.
Home and commercial renovation is also hazardous because many older buildings have asbestos-containing materials. When common asbestos products found in homes start to deteriorate or are cut, sanded, drilled or disturbed in any way, microscopic fibers enter the air.
Environmental and secondary exposure to asbestos is less common, but it still happens regularly. Most everyone in their lifetime has inhaled some quantity of asbestos, but trace amounts rarely cause health problems.
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Where Asbestos Exposure Occurs
Asbestos exposure can occur if you:
- Live near contaminated job sites or natural asbestos deposits
- Use or disturb asbestos-containing products
- Work in certain occupations, including the military
- Experience manmade or natural disasters
Thousands of products were manufactured by companies using asbestos fibers. Asbestos may be found in insulation, drywall, ceiling and floor tiles, cement, paint and more. Most U.S. homes and commercial buildings built before 1980 contain asbestos products.