Asbestos is too often thought of as a danger of the past. The unfortunate reality is that not only is asbestos not banned in the United States or the majority of the world, but its heavy past uses still linger in thousands of buildings and homes and put the public at risk of continued exposure.
In honor of Global Asbestos Awareness Week, spend time learning about how exposure can occur, the nature of asbestos-related diseases, and what to do if you have been exposed to asbestos.
How Asbestos Exposure Occurs
Asbestos has been recognized as a leading cause of occupational disease because exposure most often occurs in the workplace. The World Health Organization has estimated 125 million people are exposed to the toxin at work globally. Though asbestos use is more regulated in the United States today, with only the chlor-alkali industry still heavily relying on the mineral, asbestos may still be found in certain products up to one percent. But much of the danger comes from past uses that have never been removed.
Asbestos was used most heavily in the United States from the 1930s to the 1970s in everything from construction materials to vehicle parts to fire-proof clothing. At its peak consumption, asbestos was used in thousands of products with over 800,000 tons of the mineral consumed. Though the majority have turned to safer alternatives to asbestos today, hundreds of thousands of older homes, schools, and other buildings still contain the toxin.
Because of these old uses on top of the continued use in select products, occupational exposure remains a huge risk especially for those in construction, the automotive industry, or various kinds of manufacturing. Exposure can occur from handling asbestos products, working with old equipment that relied on the mineral, or from the building itself. If any asbestos materials become damaged over time, whether from general aging or construction, workers are at risk of inhaling or ingesting the dangerous fibers that may become airborne.
But workers aren’t the only ones at risk. Secondhand exposure has been on the rise, with workers unknowingly bringing home asbestos fibers on their clothing, in their hair, or on their equipment. Family members can then inhale the invisible fibers as they do the laundry or give their loved one a hug.
The general public is also at risk from asbestos’ heavy use in building materials in the past, though some materials, like insulation, may still use the mineral today. Homes and buildings constructed before 1980 are more than likely to contain some asbestos materials somewhere. An unknowing homeowner seeking renovations, whether in a do-it-yourself style or with a professional team, or seeing damage in the home from old age or a storm, could also face exposure.
While long-term exposures are considered more dangerous and lead to a higher mesothelioma risk, no amount of exposure is considered safe, so being aware of where to find asbestos and preventing exposure is crucial.
Understanding Asbestos-Related Diseases
Asbestos exposure may result in a number of serious diseases, like asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Asbestos has even been linked in some cases to other more common cancers, like ovarian, breast, and kidney cancer.
Asbestos-related illnesses generally develop slowly over a long time period following exposure. The asbestos fibers, once inhaled or ingested, become trapped in the body, and the immune system is unable to expel the durable fibers. They may settle into the lung tissue or the linings of organs like the lung and abdomen to cause different health effects. It can take anywhere from 10 – 50 years for the health risks to become apparent and begin showing symptoms.
Recognizing common symptoms is an important aspect of diagnosis. Some of these symptoms include:
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Fever and night sweats
The symptoms are rather vague and can be passed off as a more common illness, like the flu. Keeping in mind any potential exposures you may have faced and the long latency period, monitoring even common symptoms can help ensure an earlier diagnosis and more treatment options.
What to Do if Exposed to Asbestos
Prevention is essential, but so many accidental exposures occur every day. Awareness and education can help those exposed already stay on top of any potential health problems and get the medical help they need sooner rather than later.
Have an ongoing dialogue with your doctor. Even if you show no symptoms yet or never experience any, it’s better to explain your past exposure to your doctors and bring it up regularly. Though most primary physicians may not be well-versed in asbestos diseases, they can help monitor your health and make recommendations for any necessary tests, like chest x-rays, to get to the root of any changes in your health.
As mentioned before, monitor your symptoms. Even if you feel like you have a common cold with a lingering cough or tightness in the chest, it’s better to be extra precautious than ignore any health issues. Remember, symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases may first appear rather mild and generic, and take a long time before they may present.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Though many factors in how these diseases may develop are beyond our control, like age and gender, we all can be proactive in taking care of our overall health. Better health can lead to a better prognosis, as those patients are more likely to be able to withstand any aggressive treatments.
Until asbestos is banned and removed, we all must remain proactive in our health and raise awareness to prevent future exposures.