In the recent past, there have been heated debates about asbestos and its effect on health. When something touching on health receives as much attention as the asbestos debate has, what follows is increased interest in the topic from the public.
That is a good thing. The problem is that some of the information floating in media may not be 100% correct. It’s understandable if you’re bothered enough to want to know the facts about asbestos.
Have you ever been exposed to asbestos? Do you know someone who has been? In this article, we seek to explain what asbestos is and what it does to your health. We also tell you what should worry you and how to stay safe.
Facts about Asbestos
- Asbestos is a form of mineral that consists of thin and long fibers.
- There are six main types of asbestos minerals.
- It’s found in some types of rock.
- It is among the sturdier, natural compounds on planet earth and is not easily broken down.
Based on this last property, you can see how much of a problem asbestos becomes if it enters the human body. Unlike other compounds that find their way into the body, asbestosis not broken down and the body does not have a way of getting rid of it.
What makes asbestos troublesome is the fact that it is made up of many small fibers. You wouldn’t know of its existence unless you saw a huge block of it.
Asbestos was very popular in the 20th century, but when it became apparent that it was a serious health risk, mining and use of asbestos was outlawed in many places. While it’s no longer as widely used as before, asbestos is still used in some products.
Many of the older houses were built using asbestos-containing materials. As these materials wear out, asbestos fibers are released into the environment where they mix with the air we breathe. The same happens when you crush, demolish or destroy any product that contains asbestos.
What happens when you inhale asbestos?
When you inhale asbestos, its tiny fibers get trapped in the lungs. This causes irritation in lung tissues and can lead to a number of more serious lung illnesses. Below are the most common:
- Pleural disease
Pleural disease occurs when the membrane surrounding the chest and lung cavity thickens. It can also occur when fluid builds up around the lungs.
Pleural disease that is caused by extreme membrane thickening all around the cavity is referred to as diffuse pleural thickening.
Pleural disease that is caused when thickening of membrane only occurs in specific parts is referred to as pleural plaques.
Pleural disease that occurs due to fluid buildup is referred to as pleural effusion.
In some cases, pleural disease affects lung function, while in others, lung function stays normal and the patient has no difficulty in breathing.
Asbestosis refers to the scarring that asbestos causes in the lungs. This scarring makes it difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs, leading to breathing problems.
Asbestosis affects people who have been exposed to high amounts of asbestos over a long duration. It can be many years before symptoms of asbestos begin to appear.
Asbestos as a Cancer Risk
Long-term exposure to asbestos increases one’s risk of getting lung cancer. The risk is higher when the affected individual also smokes tobacco.
Asbestos has also been found to cause mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer that affects membranes in the chest and lung cavity, abdominal cavity, and other internal organs. Symptoms of mesothelioma only begin to show 30 or 40 years post-exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos has also been linked to cancers of thelarynx, pharynx, stomach, colorectum, and ovary.
Factors that Affect Risk of Disease
- Asbestos quantity
The amount of asbestos in the air determines your risk level for the above diseases. If you’re exposed to small amounts of asbestos, your risk of developing illness is low, and vice versa.
- Duration of exposure
Individuals who have been exposed to asbestos for many years are at the highest risk of getting sick.
- Period between exposure and now
If you were exposed to asbestos recently, it may be too early to diagnose any of the diseases relating to asbestos.
Tobacco smokers have a higher risk of getting the above diseases.
- Existing lung problems
Individuals with existing lung or breathing problems have a higher risk of disease.
From the above, it is clear that not everyone who has ever been exposed to asbestos will develop disease.
When the number of asbestos fibers in your body is negligible, they won’t cause any changes that can affect organ function. You can live as normal a life as the next person.
How can you reduce your risk of exposure to asbestos?
There are a number of steps you can take to ensure that you are not unnecessarily exposed to asbestos. Here are some of them:
- Have regular medical check-ups. Your doctor will notice any abnormalities early enough and advice on corrective measures to take.
- Avoid places that are known to contain asbestos.
The government has listed all areas that have asbestos deposits. Check whether any of these places is close to where you live.
They could be places you visit/move to in future, so always do an asbestos-check for any new area you intend to visit.
- Avoid handling old products that are known to contain asbestos.
If you live in an area known to have asbestos:
- Avoid walking or playing on bare ground as this could disturb asbestos fibers and cause them to fly around.
- Avoid sweeping the patio or sidewalk for the same reason as 3 above.
- If you have to plant a garden or play in the open ground, wet the soil to keep dust particles down.
- Wet clean surfaces around your home. Don’t dust or sweep. Use a high efficiency particulate air vacuum in place of ordinary vacuum cleaners.
- If your home contains asbestos, hire people to remove it. Only use people who have experience in asbestos removal so that they don’t further contaminate the house and surroundings.
Know how to stay safe even when surrounded by asbestos and you’ll have nothing to worry about.