6 Health Effects of Asbestos

Surya Yadav

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Between the 1930s and 1980s, asbestos was widely mined and used in various industries despite its harmful effects being documented in medical journals dating as early as the 1930s. In the 1980s, it was finally acknowledged as a health risk by the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Today, its mining is banned, and its use is heavily regulated. However, asbestos continues to be a health hazard, particularly for individuals who previously worked in mining, construction, military, and automobile industries. Current industry workers handling old equipment or participating in the demolition or renovation of older buildings still face significant exposure. People living in proximity to natural deposits and old mining operations of asbestos are also at risk of asbestos-related health issues. 

Asbestos exposure annually causes thousands of cases of life-threatening illnesses, with 90,000 people losing their lives to asbestos-related diseases every year. The latency period for asbestos exposure is between 10 to 40 years. This is the reason why asbestos-related illnesses continue to be reported despite its use being restricted in the 80s. 

Asbestos is known to cause the following health effects:

  1. Mesothelioma 

Breathing or swallowing asbestos fibers has been strongly linked with Mesothelioma, an aggressive and usually fatal cancer that affects mesothelial cells lining the pleural (lung), pericardial (heart), and peritoneal (abdominal) cavities. It is often observed in individuals with occupational asbestos exposure. It generally takes 10 to 40 years for Mesothelioma symptoms to appear, with longer latency in cases where the asbestos exposure has been low. Mesothelioma is also reported in the household members of asbestos workers due to secondhand exposure to the fiber minerals carried home on work clothes. While cancer can be fatal, early detection and intervention are reported to affect survival rates.

If you or your loved ones have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, consult a mesothelioma attorney today for legal guidance to file a claim for compensation from companies responsible for your asbestos exposure.

  1. Lung Cancer 

Lung cancer is a malignant tumor that invades the lungs’ air passages and can fatally block them. Asbestos exposure causes six times more cases of lung cancer than mesothelioma, and it claims the highest number of lives than all other asbestos-related diseases. Inhaling asbestos leads to its fibers getting lodged in the lung tissue, which can impact biological processes and lead to tumor formation. 

The risk of developing lung cancer is present even for asbestos exposure duration ranging between 1 to 12 months, but the risk gets significantly higher with long-term and high-level exposure. It is also more likely to develop in asbestos-exposed smokers because smoking decreases the lungs’ efficiency in removing asbestos fibers. Family members of asbestos-exposed individuals have also been diagnosed with lung cancer due to secondhand exposure.  

  1. Pleural disease

Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause four types of non-cancerous abnormalities in the pleura: the membrane surrounding the lungs and the chest cavity. The abnormalities include diffuse pleural thickening or fibrosis where the membrane (pleura) thickens throughout, pleural plaques where isolated areas of the membrane thicken, pleural effusion in which the pleural space has fluid buildup and rounded atelectasis in which a lung may collapse due to an area of pleural fibrosis rolling into the lung and making a part of it airless. These conditions may cause difficulty in breathing or inefficient lung function.

Approximately 10 to 60% of individuals who have worked in an asbestos-containing environment have been found to suffer from these abnormalities. These conditions also occur in their family members due to secondhand asbestos exposure.

  1. Asbestosis

Long-term inhalation of asbestos can cause lung scarring or pulmonary fibrosis called asbestosis. The inhaled asbestos fibers and dust become trapped in the air sacs (alveoli) where they irritate and scar the lung tissues. This leads to reduced lung elasticity. Symptoms of this condition may take up to 20 years to develop after exposure. By this time, the lung tissue is significantly scarred, stiff, and unable to expand. This leads to strained breathing and breathlessness. The progression of asbestosis is faster in patients who smoke, and while this condition is non-cancerous, it can increase the risk of getting lung cancer. 

  1. Laryngeal Cancer

While the leading risk factors of cancers affecting the larynx are smoking and high alcohol consumption, studies show that the risk of developing laryngeal cancer is 40% higher in individuals exposed to asbestos. As asbestos is inhaled, its fibers penetrate and settle in the laryngeal tissues while moving toward the lungs. Laryngeal cancer risk is also dependent on the level of asbestos exposure, which means that the higher the concentration and time of exposure, the higher the chances of developing this condition. A study found a higher incidence of laryngeal cancer in residents living in proximity to asbestos mines in South Korea as compared to the general population. 

Smoking and consuming alcohol can contribute to the progression of laryngeal cancer, as tobacco smoke damages the larynx while increasing the possibility of asbestos fibers lodging into the trachea and leading to the lungs. Heavy drinking can irritate and inflame the larynx, leading to faster growth of cancerous cells.

  1. Ovarian Cancer

In asbestos-related ovarian cancer, asbestos fibers accumulate in the ovarian tissue and inflame and damage cells over the years. The cause of asbestos fibers accumulating in the ovarian tissues has been theorized by researchers who posit that women who used talcum powder contaminated with asbestos may also develop ovarian cancer. Talc is a natural mineral usually found near asbestos deposits and can get contaminated during mining.

Also, women who work in industries with high exposure to asbestos, as well as female household members of men associated with such industries, can inhale or ingest the mineral fibers that can make their way through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to the ovaries. 

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Even as decades have passed since the ban on asbestos mining in the country, asbestos-related health problems persist due to the long latency period associated with exposure to asbestos fibers and dust. These health effects impact not only workers directly exposed to the harmful minerals but also their families as well as the general population living near old mining operations. Asbestos exposure has caused devastating diseases, including fatal Mesothelioma, lung cancer, pleural abnormalities, asbestosis, and laryngeal and ovarian cancer. 

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