A naturally occurring mineral fiber, asbestos is prized for its resistance to heat and many different types of corrosive chemicals. It can be woven into fabric and added to other materials to produce a wide variety of products.
Use of asbestos soared during the Industrial Revolution. Demand for the mineral soared as it was used in boilers, steam engines, railroads and other types of machinery. Firefighters even wore special garments woven with asbestos fibers to protect them from fire, and still do today.
Though asbestos may seem like a miracle mineral, it can also be highly toxic and dangerous when broken or disturbed. The fibrous nature of asbestos makes it prone to breaking and producing dust filled with microscopic fibers. This fiber-filled dust can be inhaled or ingested and cause serious health risks and diseases, some of which are life threatening.
Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure
Exposure to asbestos is known to cause serious diseases including lung and lung lining disorders, asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and other cancers.
One of the most common diseases associated with asbestos is asbestos-induced pleural effusion, a condition where excess fluid builds up in the tissue that surrounds the lungs and chest cavity. Over time, patients suffer from sharp chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and fever.
When excessive asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can cause scar tissue to form inside the lung. This is commonly referred to as asbestosis. The scarred lung tissue cannot expand and contract like normal tissue, and symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath, cough and tightness and pain in the chest. Asbestosis can worsen over time and develop into lung cancer or malignant mesothelioma.
One of the most serious forms of asbestos-related disease is mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer that attacks the thin protective lining surrounding internal organs. While it is most common on the surface of the lung, or pleura, it can also affect the lining of the abdomen and more rarely the heart.
Because symptoms of mesothelioma usually do not surface until 20 to 50 years after initial exposure, this cancer is most often diagnosed in later stages when treatment options are limited. While advancement is being made in treating mesothelioma, there is no cure for this disease.
Where Asbestos Exposure Can Occur
Those who work with asbestos are at the highest risk of exposure. Shipyard workers, asbestos textile factory workers, miners, demolition workers, firefighters and automobile workers can all be exposed to asbestos. Because asbestos can cling to hair, clothing and skin, the families of these workers are also exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos.
Asbestos-containing materials were also used in many military bases and vessels. As a result, many military veterans have also developed asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Asbestos can also be found in many homes built before the 1980s. If asbestos-containing materials are in good condition, they typically do not pose a health risk. However, if the home is renovated or these materials are disturbed asbestos fibers can become airborne. For this reason only a professional should handle possible asbestos-containing materials.
Since asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, the soils and rocks in communities and state parks also contain asbestos. When it is found in the environment, it is called naturally occurring asbestos (NOA). High levels of human activity can disturb the soil and rocks causing them to release asbestos fibers into the air.
The best way to avoid asbestos exposure is to be educated about the risks. When in doubt if a material contains asbestos, it is safer to assume it does and take the proper precautions in handling and disposal.
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Guest Post by: Michelle Y. Llamas is a writer for the Mesothelioma Center. She is committed to generating awareness about the dangers of asbestos exposure and providing information regarding breakthroughs in mesothelioma treatment.
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