Exposure to large amount of asbestos began in the late 1800s, when it was found that it could be made into a variety of products used in the shipbuilding industry, the construction industry, mining and automotive industry.
The only real risk factor for mesothelioma, an aggressive and incurable cancer, is asbestos exposure. People who inhale or ingest asbestos have an increased risk for not only mesothelioma, but they also increase their chances of developing asbestosis, lung cancer, and other types of cancers.
After it had been used extensively for more than fifty years, scientists discovered that there was a connection between asbestos exposure and the incidence of lung diseases, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Unfortunately, millions of miners and factory workers had already suffered from asbestos exposure and were at risk for developing lung cancer and mesothelioma. This means that people are still dying today from asbestos exposure they got decades ago, before asbestos use was restricted in the US.
The Dynamics of Asbestos Exposure
A person is exposed to asbestos because the fibers are light and float in the air where people can inhale or ingest the tiny asbestos fibers. Usually it requires an extended exposure to large amounts of asbestos to get an asbestos-related disease but any amount of asbestos exposure is considered risky.
Most people become exposed to asbestos in the workplace. People who work in asbestos mines, shipyards, and the construction industry are especially prone to becoming exposed to asbestos. In addition, people who renovate older homes come in contact with asbestos because older homes (built before 1980) are likely to be insulated with asbestos-containing insulation. Disturbances of insulation or the deterioration of asbestos-containing products cause the fibers to become airborne so that it is easy to inhale or ingest them.
Sandblasting, cutting or grinding objects made from asbestos cause asbestos fibers to become airborne. Once the particles get in the lungs or GI tract, they are not easily gotten rid of and the tiny asbestos fibers stick to the lining of the respiratory or GI tract. They then travel through the tissues to set up residence in the lining of the lungs or abdominal structures. The lining cells are irritated and DNA changes can happen that ultimately result in cancer, most often mesothelioma cancer.
Risks of Exposure to Asbestos
Asbestos fibers irritate the tissue, resulting in scar tissue and inflammatory changes in the lungs. The scar tissue can cause pain in the chest or abdomen as well as shortness of breath. Once a person is exposed to asbestos, it takes up to 50 years to develop any symptoms from that exposure.
Mesothelioma cancer is one of the most common complications of asbestos exposure, affecting up to 3,000 US citizens per year. Lung cancer can arise from asbestos exposure and affects another 3,000 people in the US per year.
Another common complication of asbestos exposure is a lung disease called asbestosis. This is an inflammation of the lung as it is irritated by asbestos fibers. It affects the entire lungs, with symptoms of shortness of breath and a cough.
Places of Asbestos Exposure
Exposure to asbestos can happen in a variety of places. Most of the time, asbestos exposure is related to the workplace, although it can be inhaled/ingested in the home as well.
Military exposure is one way to become affected by asbestos. All branches of the military are affected by asbestos exposure. Ship and submarine insulation are two of the more common places where military personnel become exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is found on cruisers, aircraft carriers, submarines, battleships, frigates, and destroyers so that Navy personnel are at the greatest risk of an asbestos-related illness.
There are literally thousands of products manufactured that use asbestos as part of the product. Drywall, insulation, cement, paint and tiles for ceilings and floors are common products that have asbestos in them as well as many products used in automobile manufacturing. Because it is found in insulation, homes built before asbestos was found to be dangerous may be insulated with asbestos. When these buildings are renovated, asbestos fibers can get in the air and can be inhaled by homeowners or construction crews.
Certain occupations are at a greater risk of asbestos exposure. This includes plumbers, firefighters, ship builders, drywall tapers, auto mechanics and electricians. These people are now legally required to wear protective equipment when working in areas where asbestos exposure is likely. Workplaces are currently monitored for asbestos exposure by OSHA and the EPA.
Certain job-sites put a person at a greater risk of asbestos exposure. These include:
- Metal work factories
- Power plants
- Shipyard areas
- Oil refineries
- Chemical plants
While there has been a cutback on the use of asbestos in these areas, asbestos isn’t banned in the US so that people can still become exposed in the workplace.
Asbestos is naturally floating in the air and people inhale it all the time. People who live near an asbestos mine, however, have a higher concentration of asbestos in the air so that area residence are at a higher risk of inhaling large amounts of asbestos and developing an asbestos-related illness. Environmental exposure can happen after a natural disaster that destroys homes and disrupts the insulation in the homes. People who live near factories where asbestos is used can also get asbestos exposure from the environment.
Secondary exposure to asbestos can occur when family members of people who work with asbestos inhale or ingest the fibers the workers bring home from the job-site. Asbestos can get in the laundry or be passed by having close contact with someone who has asbestos on their work clothes. Children have been known to have asbestos exposure from being near a family member who has asbestos on their clothing. Asbestos can be found on the furniture in the homes of people who are exposed to asbestos at work.