Asbestos is a group of six silicate minerals that naturally occur in rock and soil. Prior to the late 1970s, asbestos was widely used as a popular manufacturing product in the United States due to its natural properties, which include heat resistance, strength, chemical resistance and fireproofing.
Asbestos is a carcinogen, meaning it causes cancer and other serious illnesses in humans. Researchers state that there is no safe amount of asbestos for human exposure. Even a small amount of asbestos can result in severe health problems, and is the only known cause of a rare type of cancer known as mesothelioma.
What Does Asbestos Look Like?
Individual asbestos fibers are microscopic and too small to see with the naked eye. It is most dangerous in the form of dust, which can become airborne and get inhaled.
Different types of asbestos have different colors, shapes and appearances. The most common fiber shape is sharp, thin and needle-like. When used in products, asbestos may be present in spray-on insulation and popcorn ceiling or thermal insulation. Often, people cannot spot asbestos; professionals must be brought in to inspect and test for this carcinogen.
Is Asbestos Dangerous?
The health hazards associated with asbestos are caused by the fibers becoming lodged in the tissues inside the body. If asbestos particles are inhaled through the mouth or nose, ingested, or if they enter the body in a different way, the microscopic fibers can become stuck and remain there for many years.
The most common area of the body affected by asbestos is the pleura (the lining of the lungs), from breathing in asbestos. This can result in a cancer known as pleural mesothelioma. There is currently no known way to remove asbestos fibers from the body, even if an accumulation is discovered prior to the individual showing symptoms of an asbestos-related illness.
Over time, the particles cause irritation and a buildup of scar tissue. This can lead to serious health problems, such as inflammation of the lungs that affect breathing. Asbestos particles in other parts of the body can cause harm to the stomach, heart, testicles and ovaries. In some cases, the scarring turns into cancerous tumors, resulting in malignant mesothelioma.
Types of Asbestos
There are two groups of asbestos minerals: serpentine and amphibole. Serpentine asbestos fibers contain chrysotile, which are long and curly fibers that can be woven. This is the type of asbestos that has been the most widely used in manufacturing. Amphibole asbestos consists of straight, needle-like fibers that are more difficult to work with.
There are six main types of asbestos:
- Chrysotile (the only serpentine type)
All types of asbestos are dangerous and can potentially cause health problems if inhaled or ingested. Some studies suggest that amphibole asbestos is more dangerous than chrysotile, as it can stay in the lungs for a longer period of time (source: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). However, more research is needed to confirm this theory.
History of Asbestos in the United States
From the late 1800s until the 1980s, asbestos was used frequently for manufacturing, building and construction, fireproofing, and chemical refining. Asbestos mining in the U.S. reached an all-time high in the 1960s and early 1970s, with more than 100 operating mines. Then, asbestos became classified as a known human carcinogen. This resulted in federal regulations enacted in the late 1970s to limit the use of asbestos.
Despite known health risks, asbestos is still not fully banned in the U.S. today. The last asbestos mine on U.S. soil was closed in 2002. Any asbestos that is still used in the U.S. is imported from elsewhere; currently, Russia is the main source.
Where Is Asbestos Found?
Asbestos occurs naturally and forms deposits all over the world. Many of these deposits are located in the United States, mainly in the western region and eastern coast. Working or living in or near an asbestos mine is a health hazard. However, due to asbestos being a popular component in building materials and consumer goods, it is commonly found in many other locations that the average person encounters.
Asbestos can be found in:
- The workplace
- Industrial job sites (power plants, factories, etc.)
- Schools and Universities
- Automobile shops
- Homes and residences
- Insulation and HVAC systems
- Ships and shipyards
- Military sites
Older buildings are common settings for asbestos, including schools and factories. It is also possible to find asbestos in a wide variety of consumer products, both old and new.
Common examples of products that contain asbestos include:
- Vinyl ceiling and floor tiles
- Ceiling spray
- Insulation containing vermiculite
- Concrete and cement
- Joint compounds
- Roofing materials
- Heat-resistant fabrics
- Automobile brakes, clutches and mufflers
Some products are known to contain asbestos, while others may unexpectedly put consumers at risk of exposure. For example, recently, trace amounts of asbestos have been found in contaminated talcum powder products (source: the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health). Talc and asbestos often share mines, as these deposits naturally form next to each other.
How Does Asbestos Exposure Occur?
A common circumstance surrounding harmful asbestos exposure is unexpectedly encountering old materials that contain this mineral. Many people do not realize that they have asbestos in their homes. They can be unintentionally exposed when an asbestos-containing material is disturbed or damaged, releasing microscopic asbestos fibers into the air. Home renovation, maintenance and remodeling projects often come with this risk if the home was built prior to 1980.
Asbestos-related diseases also arise in workers who are frequently exposed to asbestos on the job. This includes auto mechanics, construction workers, HVAC professionals, shipbuilders, firefighters, military members, factory workers, manufacturers, and teachers in schools that are contaminated with asbestos. Although no amount of asbestos is safe for human contact, studies show that mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses are more common among people who are exposed to it regularly, such as workers, especially those in high-risk occupations.
What Is Secondhand Asbestos Exposure?
Secondhand or “secondary” exposure to asbestos describes someone being exposed through contact with an individual who works regularly around asbestos and who unknowingly brings fibers and particles home on contaminated clothes, shoes and gear. Secondhand exposure can affect a worker’s spouse, children or other household members. It can be prevented by the worker changing clothes and showering prior to going home.
What Illnesses Are Linked to Asbestos?
Asbestos is currently connected to many serious illnesses, diseases and types of cancer. Since asbestos particles can infiltrate multiple parts of the body, they can cause a wide range of illnesses in more than one location. There is evidence to suggest that asbestos can contribute to throat cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer and stomach cancer.
Specific types of cancer associated with asbestos exposure include:
- Mesothelioma is a relatively rare type of cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos. The four types of mesothelioma are pleural (lungs), peritoneal (abdomen), pericardial (heart) and testicular (testes). Malignant mesothelioma is terminal, with an average life expectancy at the time of diagnosis of 12 to 21 months with treatment (source: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
- Lung cancer develops within the lung itself rather than the thin membrane that lines the outside of the lungs. The link between asbestos and lung cancer is still being studied, especially among regularly exposed workers.
- Laryngeal cancer is a rare disease that affects the larynx. Research has shown that exposure to asbestos can increase the risk of developing laryngeal cancer (source: the National Library of Medicine). The cancer risk is dependent on the amount of asbestos exposure.
- Ovarian cancer has been shown by recent studies (source: the National Cancer Institute) to have a potential connection to asbestos exposure, particularly in women who use contaminated talcum powder products for personal hygiene.
Prolonged exposure to asbestos can result in several non-cancerous illnesses such as:
- Asbestosis is a lung disease that can cause respiratory problems, chest pain and trouble breathing due to damage to the lung tissues from inhaling asbestos fibers.
- Pleural effusion is a buildup of fluid in the sac surrounding the lungs, placing pressure on the lungs that can restrict their expansion and contraction.
- Pleural thickening and plaques are areas of thickened tissues in the lungs that can affect breathing function.
Can You Treat Asbestos-Related Illnesses?
Even if exposure to asbestos does not result in a deadly disease, a victim may experience trouble breathing and other uncomfortable symptoms for life. However, there are treatments that can help alleviate pressure or fluid buildup in the lungs, as well as control other symptoms to improve a patient’s quality and enjoyment of life.
Can You Recover From Mesothelioma?
Sadly, mesothelioma is a terminal type of cancer that has no known cure. Hope for the future is available, however, thanks to modern medicine and advancements in mesothelioma research. Patients who are diagnosed with mesothelioma may be able to extend their life expectancies – by years, in some cases (source: PubMed Central) – and increase their quality of life through a multimodal treatment plan.
Multiple treatment methods aggressively fight cancer, including surgery to remove tumors, chemotherapy and radiation therapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells, and palliative treatments to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. The treatment options available for a patient with mesothelioma depend on the age and overall health of the patient, the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis, and several other factors.
How Do You Know if You’ve Been Exposed to Asbestos?
Asbestos exposure is not something that you might notice unless you are aware that you were in contact with asbestos dust or particles. Asbestos fibers take many years – often, several decades – to cause enough damage to show outward signs and symptoms. The delay between asbestos exposure and the development of cancer or a non-cancerous illness is known as the latency period. The latency period typically ranges from 20-60+ years.
Eventually, an individual may notice symptoms of an asbestos-related disease. If the disease affects the lungs, common signs include:
- A persistent dry cough
- A cough that worsens over time
- Pain or tightness in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Respiratory problems or trouble breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Lumps on the skin of the chest
- Swelling in the face or neck
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Clubbing of the fingers or toes
The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma, asbestosis and other lung problems connected to asbestos are often similar to lung cancer and pneumonia.
Asbestos-related diseases that result in peritoneal mesothelioma, on the other hand, can result in symptoms that revolve around the abdomen, such as:
- Stomach or abdominal pain
- Stomach swelling or bloating
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Bowel obstruction
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
- Night sweats
You may also experience other symptoms if you are diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness elsewhere in the body. To find out if you have been exposed to asbestos, a doctor will often initially use a chest x-ray to search for signs of lung disease. Then, a tissue biopsy will be analyzed under a microscope to confirm the presence of asbestos.
How to Protect Yourself From Asbestos
You may be able to prevent asbestos-related diseases by knowing what to look for and protecting yourself against the possibility of inhaling or ingesting microscopic asbestos fibers. If you believe that asbestos is present in your home or workplace, take proper preventive measures to protect yourself.
Wear a respirator that is equipped to filter out asbestos. If you are concerned about the risk of asbestos exposure in your workplace, discuss the situation with your employer. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has specific standards and regulations in place to protect workers from asbestos exposure.
If you are doing a renovation project on an older home or building, wear a respirator and other protective gear. If you believe you have encountered asbestos, exit the area immediately. Do not touch or disturb the potential asbestos. Contact an asbestos extraction professional to identify if it is asbestos and safely remove the asbestos from the premises.
Can You File a Lawsuit for an Asbestos Related Illness?
Asbestos exposure – and subsequent health problems – are typically preventable. If you or a loved one gets diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, you may be eligible for financial compensation. Bringing a civil lawsuit against the person or entity responsible for exposing you to asbestos could help you move forward with the compensation that you need to pay for your medical treatments.
Additionally, many companies have established asbestos trust funds that may allow those affected by their products to recover compensation without the filing of a lawsuit. An asbestos attorney with Bailey & Glasser, LLP can help you explore your legal options.