What’s the Big Deal about Asbestos?
They sound so harmless: tiny mineral fibers, interspersed throughout rock deposits, mined for their natural insulating qualities. Just how bad can these asbestos fibers be?
Just ask any of the 3,000 Americans who are diagnosed with mesothelioma in any given year – or any of the thousands of others diagnosed with different asbestos-related diseases: Asbestos is much more dangerous than it sounds.
What is Asbestos?
Found all across the world, including major deposits in Canada, China, Russia and Australia, asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber that can be classified into six different types:
Each of these types of fibers was found to be excellent at fireproofing industrial materials, and they were used in countless industrial products until the 1980s. Inexpensive and readily available, asbestos was a preferred ingredient in insulation, paint, shingles, tiles, caulking and various other construction products.
However, even during the peak of industrial asbestos use, many health professionals were warning companies about the health risks that asbestos industry workers faced. Use of asbestos fibers continued on – unregulated – until the 1980s.
Why is Asbestos Dangerous?
Despite its popularity in the industrial world, asbestos is a class A carcinogen for its association with cancerous diseases.
Since the 1960s, asbestos has been linked to an aggressive cancer called mesothelioma. This primary asbestos cancer is typically terminal, spreading rapidly and causing disabling side effects until it has reached its final stage.
Asbestos is also known to cause ovarian cancer, laryngeal cancer and lung cancer, with up to 4 percent of all lung cancer cases having a link to asbestos. Other several studies suggest a link between asbestos exposure and gastrointestinal cancer and colorectal cancer, while asbestos may also be associated with the following cancers:
- Kidney cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Gallbladder cancer
In addition to these cancers, asbestos can cause conditions such as asbestosis (a progressive scarring of the lungs), pleural effusions and pleural plaques. Asbestos exposure can also cause lung damage that makes existing cases of COPD worse than they already are.
How Does Asbestos Cause Disease?
Asbestos exposure – when someone either inhales or ingests asbestos fibers over an extended period of time – can lead to the development of these diseases.
Because asbestos fibers break apart very easily and any sort of disturbance can release them into the air, asbestos exposure can occur any time asbestos (in its natural form or in a finished product) is handled.
Once asbestos has been inhaled, the thin, sharp fibers can easily become lodged within the body. Over time, the fibers cause scarring, inflammation and biological changes that can lead to cancerous and non-cancerous diseases.
For some illnesses, these changes can occur over a period of years, with a latency period of up to 50 years for pleural mesothelioma. As a result, anyone who has been exposed to asbestos during their lifetime should consider regular screenings for asbestos-related diseases.
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Author bio: Faith Franz is a writer for the Mesothelioma Center. She combines her interests in whole-body health and medical research to educate the mesothelioma community about the newest developments in cancer care.