Why is asbestos a hazard?

Asbestos is made up of microscopic bundles of fibers that may become airborne when distributed. These fibers get into the air and may become inhaled into the lungs, where they may cause significant health problems. Researchers still have not determined a "safe level" of exposure but we know the greater and the longer the exposure, the greater the risk of contracting an asbestos related disease. Some of these health problems include:

  • Asbestosis
  • a lung disease first found in naval shipyard workers. As asbestos fibers are inhaled, they may become trapped in the lung tissue. The body tries to dissolve the fibers by producing an acid. This acid, due to the chemical resistance of the fiber, does little to damage the fiber, but may scar the surrounding tissue. Eventually, this scarring may become so severe that the lungs cannot function. The latency period (meaning the time it takes for the disease to become developed) is often 25-40 years.

  • Mesothelioma
  • a cancer of the pleura (the outer lining of the lung and chest cavity) and/or the peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal wall). This form of cancer is peculiar because the only known cause is from asbestos exposure. The latency period for mesothelioma is often 15-30 years.

  • Lung Cancer
  • caused by asbestos. The effects of lung cancer are often greatly increased by cigarette smoking (by about 50%)! Cancer of the gastrointestinal tract can also be caused by asbestos. The latency period for cancer is often 15-30 years.

Despite the common misconception, asbestos does not cause head-aches, sore muscles or other immediate symptoms. As mentioned above, the effects often go unnoticed for 15-40 years.

Although most studies deal with occupational exposures, a growing number of studies have linked disease to environmental asbestos exposures. For instance, there are reports of markedly elevated mesothelioma rates in populations living in areas in Greece, Turkey and New Caledonia with substantial quantities of tremolite asbestos in the soil, particularly among individuals who used tremolite asbestos to whitewash their homes. In Libby, Montana, asbestos related diseases have occurred not only in miners, but among their family members and other non-workers exposed through environmental sources of asbestos. Asbestos deposits, including both chrysotile and amphibole asbestos, are located in many parts of the United States and are commonly associated with serpentine, talc or vermiculite. Environmental exposures can occur when these formations are disturbed, thus releasing fibers into the air.

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