Asbestos Exposures and Effects


Asbestos Defined

Asbestos can be defined as a group of minerals that occur naturally as bundles of fibers, which can be separated into thin threads. The advantage of asbestos that promoted its wide use in building and other industries was that it was not affected by heat, chemicals and did not conduct electricity.

Typical uses include: strengthening cement and plastics, insulation, fireproofing, sound absorption, vehicle brake shoes and clutch pads.
It’s subsequently discovered disadvantage is that asbestos fiber masses tend to break easily tiny particles of dust.

These aerodynamic fibre dust particles are easily inhaled or swallowed, leading to serious health problems like lung cancer, mesothelioma and other lung related complications. There is no harm as long as materials containing asbestos are not damaged and fibers are not spread into the air. Particles of asbestos dust can be carried on clothes and food, putting more people at risk.


Effects of asbestos exposure

Damage from asbestos inhalation or ingestion is most often not noticed for more than twenty years. The inhalation of some kinds of asbestos fiber leads to serious illnesses, which include asbestosis, mesothelioma, and asbestos related lung cancer.

Mesothelioma is a disease in which cancerous cells start growing around the heart, chest or abdominal region of the body. Mesothelioma affects the mesothelium membrane that covers the internal organs of the body and allows them to easily move against each other. Mesothelioma can cause growth of mesothelium beyond control which in turn damages the organs. It takes about 30-40 years after asbestos exposure for mesothelioma symptoms to occur.

Inhalation of asbestos causes scar tissue to develop on lower lobes of the lungs. The scarring reduces the elasticity of the lung, leading to lacerations in lung tissue. It also impairs the lungs effective volume and its ability to exchange gases, reducing the oxygen uptake by blood. By the time the symptoms and signs are recognized, they may be beyond treatment and may prove fatal.

Inhalation can also lead to cancer of the pleural lining, called Mesothelioma. By the time Mesothelioma is diagnosed, it is almost always fatal.
Mesotheliomas can also develop in the pericardium, a lining surrounding the heart. This is then referred to as Pericardial Mesothelioma.

Typical symptoms include:

  • Respiratory symptoms such as: shortness of breath, persistent cough and pain in the chest while breathing
  • Digestive disorders such as: loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting and consequent weight loss
  • General malaise: weakness and fatigue, fever
  • Abdominal pain

For more on diagnosis of Mesothelioma.

For information on treatment of Mesothelioma.


Mesothelioma Research

Much of the research into mesothelioma is learning the effects of asbestos upon cellsl and thereby learning how cell damage can be prevented or treated. Researchers are studying exactly how asbestos causes meosthelial tissue to develop into a mesothelioma.

While asbestos is the major cause of many diseases and cancers such as pericardial mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma and other problems, the latest research shows cases of mesothelioma cancer where patients did not have any prior asbestos exposure.

Other possible causes such as prior exposure to radiation; when a substance called thorium dioxide was used in some X-ray tests.

Mesothelioma can also develop from contact with some minerals closely related to asbestos that are found in the soil.

Smoking does not appear to increase or cause mesothelioma. Mesothelioma cancer is not geneticallty passed, contagious and cannot be passed on to other people.

Older buildings that have exposed insulation that contains asbestos or areas where asbestos fibers are disturbed or exposed should be checked by experts and repaired or removed.


Avoiding Asbestos Exposure

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set down guidelines for handling and working with asbestos.

It recommends:

  • Workers wear approved respirators and masks to prevent inhalation of the material.
  • Installing proper filtration plants in some industries.
  • Abiding by The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) at 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter (f/cc) for an 8 hour time weighted average to maintain clean atmosphere at places where asbestos is handled.


Handling Asbestos Materials

Asbestos fixed firmly and used as insulation within enclosed areas such as walls and pipes is not likely to pose a health hazard with regard to malignant pleural mesothelioma.

Asbestos should not sawed, drilled or handled in any other manner that could cause the asbestos fibers to be diffused into the air, and inhaled.

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