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October is Healthy Lung Month, a month-long recognition of the importance that our lungs play in our everyday lives. A big part of making sure our lungs stay healthy is by avoiding toxic substances, such as asbestos.
While there are many different chemicals and materials that can be dangerous when inhaled, asbestos is particularly heinous. It’s a known carcinogen, and it can also create other medical problems when breathed in. This article provides an overview of the three most dangerous lung-related conditions that asbestos can cause or contribute to.
As a rare form of cancer, not many people are aware of mesothelioma. However, it is one of the most deadly cancers, given its long latency period of between 10 and 50 years, and the fact that most people are diagnosed at a late stage, after it has spread throughout the body.
The thing is, mesothelioma is nearly always associated with a history of asbestos exposure. Medical studies have shown a clear link between mesothelioma and asbestos, even going into detail about how the asbestos can become embedded in mesothelial tissue and cause inflammation that eventually leads to the development of tumors.
Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of the disease, and it originates in the linings of the lungs (known as the pleura). Normally, the pleura allows the lungs to move freely within the chest cavity as they expand and contract through normal operation.
Once asbestos becomes embedded in the pleura, however, problems start to occur. The tissue can become inflamed, and symptoms such as pleural effusion – fluid buildup around the lungs – can make it difficult for the individual to breathe. Over time, these symptoms will become worse and worse, and eventually part or all of a lung may need to be removed in an attempt to treat the disease.
Asbestosis is fibrosis of the lungs, which refers to the development of excessive connective tissue within the lungs. This often leads to scarring and inflammation within and around the lungs themselves, and it is sometimes a precursor to mesothelioma or various forms of lung cancer.
The first well-documented cases of asbestosis occurred about a century ago, when a woman who worked in an asbestos factory near London, England, died unexpectedly. An autopsy revealed massive scarring and fibrous tissue in her lungs due to her inhalation of asbestos, and the name “asbestosis” was given to her condition. Since then, numerous medical studies have been published on the link between asbestos and fibrosis of the lungs.
Asbestosis can often be mistaken for other lung-related conditions. One way that it is distinguished from other conditions is by looking for the presence of pleural plaques – which almost always indicate exposure to asbestos.
Unfortunately, as with mesothelioma, there is no cure for asbestosis. People who develop it may also be more susceptible to other illnesses, such as pneumococcal pneumonia, the flu, and certain forms of cancer.
Everybody knows that tobacco is the cause of lung cancer, right? As it turns out, that is not necessarily true.
A number of studies have shown that exposure to asbestos can increase the risk of developing lung cancer. While mesothelioma is the most common form of cancer associated with asbestos, lung cancer can still develop through the same mechanism of inflammation caused by inhaled asbestos fibers.
Note that smoking can still play a role in asbestos-caused lung cancer. Various studies have shown that people who both smoke and are exposed to asbestos have a much greater risk of developing lung cancer than either one of those factors alone. The effects of both smoking and asbestos exposure are multiplied significantly.
Like mesothelioma, asbestos-caused lung cancer can take many years to develop after the initial exposure.
Keeping Your Lungs Healthy
So, what can you do to help your lungs stay healthy? Here are some ideas:
Stay Away: Avoid asbestos as much as possible. There is still a lot of it out there, as it was used heavily as a construction material up to about the 1980s, and it has been found in plenty of new products even since then.
Protect Yourself: If you are remodeling, restoring, rebuilding, or doing any other form of construction at home or at work, make sure to protect yourself and your family from the dust that could contain asbestos.
Fight to Ban Asbestos: Despite all the dangers that asbestos poses to our lungs (and other parts of our body), it is still not banned in the United States. The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2016, recently introduced in the Senate, would put an asbestos ban in place. Contact your senators to tell them you support this bill.