What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos refers to a group of six chemically similar silicate fibers. These naturally occurring fibers are durable, fire-resistant, and noise-absorbent, and serve as a key component in a variety of industrial products, including items for the home. Unfortunately, asbestos has also been linked to serious medical conditions, including several forms of cancer. By one estimate, as many as 15,000 Americans die every year from an asbestos-triggered disease. Though exposure to any amount of asbestos is risky, it is prolonged contact in either occupational or domestic settings that represents the most pressing challenge to health.
If you or a family member has been exposed to asbestos, please see your Baptist Health physician. He or she can arrange for screenings to determine your level of risk.
What Are the Health Effects of Asbestos Exposure?
Asbestos is a light, fibrous material that separates easily when disturbed, entering the atmosphere and remaining there for long periods. Breathing in these microscopic fibers introduces them to your lungs. If the fibers accumulate over time, inflammation and cellular damage can result, which are precursors to both cancerous and noncancerous medical conditions. Asbestos exposure can be a slow form of getting sick; it often takes decades before a disease openly manifests itself.
Medical conditions caused or exacerbated by asbestos include:
- Lung cancer
- Mesothelioma, a cancer of the chest and abdominal linings
- Ovarian cancer
- Laryngeal cancer
- Asbestosis, an inflammation and scarring of the lungs
- Pleural plaques, a thickening of the lung tissue
- Fluid buildup around the lungs, called pleural effusion
Atelectasis, the collapse of a lung due to the accumulation of fluid, mucus, or pus.
- Pleurisy, nn inflammation of the pleura, a membrane that covers your lungs. It also lines your chest cavity.
- Diffuse Pleural Thickening, a thickening of the pleura lining in the chest cavity, most often due to a viral infection or cancer.
What Are the Symptoms of Asbestos Exposure?
Symptoms are disease dependent but the following are common to a number of asbestos-related conditions:
- Labored breathing
- Chest or abdominal pain
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Chronic coughing
- Blood or sputum (phlegm) forced up from the lungs
- Unplanned weight loss
Though more heavily regulated than in the past, asbestos remains an important industrial component in many everyday products, including insulation, construction materials, floor tiles, soundproofing, car parts, joint compounds, plastics, and heat-resistant gloves and clothing.
Who is Most at Risk for Asbestos Exposure?
The persons most at risk are those working in industries that utilize asbestos, especially if they were employed before regulations limiting exposure became prevalent during the late 1970s:
- Construction workers
- Railroad workers
- Mill workers
- Shipyard employees
- Military personnel, especially naval personnel
Exposure can also occur in the home, because of the presence of insulation and other products containing asbestos. Secondary exposure is possible, if a member of the household works in an industrial capacity and brings home asbestos fibers on his or her skin, clothing, or shoes.
One of the main ways people are exposed to asbestos is by breathing in dust from damaged buildings containing asbestos. It can also occur during home renovations. Inhaling airborne particles carrying asbestos increases your risk of developing asbestos-related conditions. Asbestos can remain airborne from 48-72 hours.
Short-term Asbestos Exposure
Single episodes of asbestos exposure are not considered a major health risk. There are usually no noticeable short-term asbestos exposure symptoms. The negative impact of asbestos tends to accumulate over a period of years. Asbestos generally impairs your health only with extended exposure. However, we recommend that you avoid any exposure to asbestos.
How is Asbestos Exposure Diagnosed?
People are often exposed to asbestos long before they develop the symptoms of a disease. Your physician may be able to gage the extent of your exposure by measuring trace amounts in mucous, urine, feces, or fluid removed from your lungs.
If you report any symptoms that are consistent with an asbestos-triggered condition, your physician may:
- Perform one or more lung-function tests
- Order an X-ray or CT scan of your chest cavity
- Insert a bronchoscope into your lungs, to examine your airways for damage consistent with the presence of asbestos
- Collect a small sample of lung tissue and conduct a biopsy
How Is Asbestos Exposure Treated?
Asbestos exposure is a precondition to disease rather than a disease itself. As such, there is no real means of treating it. If you develop lung cancer or another asbestos-linked medical condition, your physician will devise a treatment plan that is appropriate for your situation.
How Do I Avoid Asbestos Exposure?
The key to avoiding an asbestos-triggered disease is avoiding exposure to asbestos. In recent decades, workplace regulations have reduced the possibility of contact in many industrial locations.
Asbestos in the home, especially in older residences, remains a concern. By keeping insulation and other asbestos products unexposed and undisturbed, risk can be minimized.
Learn More About Asbestos Exposure Risk at Baptist Health
Asbestos exposure, especially if prolonged, represents a potentially serious danger to your health. If you or a loved one has come into contact with asbestos, see your Baptist Health physician, who can arrange screenings for lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other diseases associated with exposure.
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