Asbestos is a group of minerals with thin microscopic fibers. Because these fibers are resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals and do not conduct electricity, asbestos has been mined and used widely in the construction, automotive, and other industries.
If products containing asbestos are disturbed, the tiny fibers are released into the air. When they are breathed in, they can become trapped in the lungs and stay there for many years. Over time these fibers can accumulate and lead to serious health problems, including:
•Asbestosis, an inflammatory condition of lungs that can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and eventually scarring of the lungs that makes it hard to breathe.
•Mesothelioma, a rare cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, chest cavity, or abdomen.
•Other lung problems, including pleural plaques (changes in the membranes surrounding the lungs), thickening of the membranes that surround the lungs, and pleural effusions (abnormal collections of fluid between the lungs and the inside wall of the chest.
Studies have also suggested an association between asbestos exposure and other cancers, including cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, throat, kidney, brain, bladder, voice box, gallbladder, and others. However, the evidence is inconclusive.
Asbestos Exposure: Causes and Risks
Asbestos exposure may occur in the workplace, home, or community. Mined and used commercially since the 1800s, asbestos has been used in many products, including: car brake shoes and clutch pads; building materials, including ceiling and floor tiles; paints, coatings, and adhesives; plastics; vermiculite-containing garden products; and some talc-containing crayons. Due to federal regulations and health concerns, asbestos is much less widely used than it was just a few decades ago.
Most cases of asbestos poisoning occur in asbestos workers; however, there is some evidence that family members of workers heavily exposed to asbestos face an increased risk of developing mesothelioma, possibly due to the exposure of asbestos fibers brought into the home on the clothing, skin, and hair. Cases of mesothelioma have also been seen in people living close to asbestos mines.
Another group at risk of developing asbestos-related disease is workers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Asbestos was used in the construction of the North Tower, and hundreds of tons of asbestos were released into the atmosphere during the attack.
Several factors are involved in how asbestos exposure affects an individual. These include:
•How much asbestos a person was exposed to
•How long the person was exposed
•The size, shape and chemical makeup of the asbestos fibers
•The presence of other lung diseases
Smoking also increases the risk of problems related to asbestos exposure.
There are different forms of asbestos. Although all forms are considered hazardous, different types of asbestos fibers may be associated with different health risks. For example, the results of several studies suggest that amphibole forms (which have longer, more durable fibers) may be more harmful than chrysotile forms (which have curly fibers), particularly for mesothelioma risk, because they tend to stay in the lungs longer.
Asbestos cancer and other health problems take many years to develop. Most cases of lung cancer or asbestosis in asbestos workers occur 15 or more years after initial exposure to asbestos. For mesothelioma, the lag time is even longer. The time between initial asbestos exposure and mesothelioma commonly has been 30 years or more.