9 Health Conditions Associated With Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring silicate minerals once heavily used in various construction materials and consumer products. At one point, asbestos was considered a “miracle mineral” due to its durability, fire resistance, and insulating abilities. However, we now know that asbestos exposure is associated with severe health risks.
When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or damaged, microscopic fibers are released into the air, which can then be inhaled. These thin, invisible asbestos fibers can become lodged in the lungs and other organs, leading to inflammation, scarring, and potentially cancer or other diseases.
According to the EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region’s reports, asbestos is present in 42 of the 58 counties in California, responsible for the overall asbestos-related death rate of 3.8 per 100,000 population in the state. This highlights the importance of asbestos awareness and proper abatement procedures, especially in older buildings where asbestos is still abundant.
Following are nine specific health conditions that have been linked to asbestos exposure. Being informed about these risks is crucial for protecting yourself and your loved ones from the dangers of asbestos.
Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer that affects the mesothelium, a protective lining that covers many of the body’s internal organs. The most common form is pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the lungs. This cancer is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure and can take 10-50 years to develop after initial exposure. Patients face a poor prognosis, with survival times of 12-21 months after diagnosis.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 3,000 mesothelioma cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Out of these, 300 incident cases of malignant mesothelioma were reported in California alone. Given the state’s alarmingly high incidence of the disease, through the help of a mesothelioma lawyer California residents can pursue legal avenues for compensation, especially when exposure occurred due to negligence.
Mesothelioma has a strong association with occupational asbestos exposure, so workers in construction, shipyards, and other trades are at the highest risk. However, secondary exposure from a family member’s work clothes can also cause mesothelioma decades later.
In addition to mesothelioma, asbestos exposure is also known to cause lung cancer. In fact, asbestos workers are five times more likely to develop lung cancer than the general population. Asbestos fibers become lodged in lung tissue, leading to genetic damage that causes normal cells to turn cancerous. The more asbestos someone is exposed to, the higher their risk becomes. Smoking also dramatically increases the chances of developing asbestos-related lung cancer.
Like mesothelioma, the latency period for asbestos-related lung cancer is typically 15 to 35 years after exposure. The prognosis tends to be poor, especially if the cancer is not caught early on. Both small-cell and non-small-cell lung cancers have been linked to asbestos.
Pleural plaques are areas of scar tissue on the pleura, the membrane surrounding the lungs. This scarring is caused by asbestos fibers damaging the tissue. While pleural plaques themselves are harmless, they serve as an indicator of asbestos exposure and a marker for increased risks of other diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer. Those with a history of occupational exposure should have regular screenings to monitor for plaques.
Similar to pleural plaques, pleural thickening occurs when asbestos fibers cause scarring and thickening of the pleural membranes. This can restrict lung expansion and capacity, leading to shortness of breath. In severe cases, it may require oxygen therapy or surgery to remove the scar tissue. Pleural thickening is often progressive and can be disabling. It also elevates the risk of other asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestosis is a serious lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers, which trigger inflammation and scarring (fibrosis) in lung tissue. This reduces elasticity and gas exchange in the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, chest tightness and pain. These worsen over time as the lungs sustain more damage.
In severe cases, asbestosis can lead to cardiac failure or respiratory infections. There is no cure, but quitting smoking, medications, oxygen therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation can help manage symptoms. Asbestosis mainly affects those with prolonged, heavy asbestos exposure in industrial occupations. The latency period is typically 10-50 years from the time of exposure.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive group of lung diseases that block airflow and make breathing difficult. One of the main causes of COPD is exposure to lung irritants like asbestos fibers or cigarette smoke.
Asbestos leads to lung inflammation and scarring, narrowing the airways. Those with asbestos-related COPD often experience wheezing, frequent lung infections, and a chronic cough with mucus production. Quitting smoking and avoiding further asbestos exposure can help slow the progression of COPD.
The larynx, commonly called the voice box, is another area that can be affected by inhaled asbestos fibers. People exposed to asbestos have a higher risk of developing laryngeal cancer, also known as larynx cancer. This disease can cause hoarseness, chronic cough, difficulty swallowing, and neck lumps. Treatment often requires surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Laryngeal cancer linked to asbestos also has a long latency period of up to 35 years after exposure.
Some research indicates that asbestos fibers can travel through the lymphatic system to the ovaries, leading to an elevated risk of ovarian cancer. A study of nearly 2,000 women found that those with occupational asbestos exposure were three times more likely to develop ovarian cancer than women without exposure. More research is still needed, but it appears asbestos may be a potential cause of this deadly cancer.
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract includes the esophagus, stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, small intestine, and colon. Studies show these organs are also vulnerable to asbestos exposure. Asbestos fibers swallowed through the mouth can become lodged in GI tissue and cause cellular mutations leading to cancer. The most common asbestos-related cancers in the GI system are esophageal, stomach, and colorectal cancers. The overall risk of GI cancers increases with more intense asbestos exposure.
In conclusion, asbestos remains a serious health hazard despite being banned in many countries. Exposure to asbestos fibers can lead to pleural plaques in the short term and potentially devastating cancers or lung diseases later on. The only way to prevent asbestos-related illness is to avoid any exposure in older buildings or other environments where asbestos is disturbed. Companies must adhere to strict regulations when removing asbestos to protect their employees and the public.
If you have a history of asbestos exposure, whether occupational or environmental, it is critical to receive regular screenings to catch any related diseases as soon as possible. While new asbestos use is now heavily restricted, past exposure remains a threat for millions. Being proactive and informed about asbestos-related conditions is key to protecting yourself and your loved ones from unnecessary harm.