Exposure to asbestos particles is one of the principal causes of mesothelioma cancer, also known as asbestos cancer. As a naturally occurring mineral with useful commercial applications, asbestos is found in plumbing, insulation and other building materials and products.
Through the liberal commercial use of this material, most people in the United States and other industrial nations have been or will be exposed to loose, airborne particles in their work or home environments, this exposure can create significant health hazards.
Over 700,000 schools and buildings in the United States today contain asbestos insulation as reported by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Asbestos exposure doesn't stop there, however. Asbestos is often found in ship yards, manufacturing facilities, railway facilities and construction sites. Blue collar workers are at the highest risk for developing mesothelioma due to occupational exposure. They typically work in aluminum plants, oil refineries, chemical plants, mines, factories, shipyards, construction sites and railroads. Employees at insulation and gas mask manufacturing facilities are also at risk. The occupations most widely affected are miners, factory workers, railroad workers, ship builders and construction workers - especially those who install asbestos-containing insulation. Sometimes family members related to the workers receive second hand exposure to asbestos from the dust and fibers that were brought home on the workers clothes and also become at risk for contracting mesothelioma.
There are six different types of asbestos: chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite. These six mineral types are divided into two classifications, serpentine and amphibole. Chrysotile is the only mineral in the serpentine class. As known carcinogens both classes of asbestos can cause mesothelioma.
In the United States, chrysotile was the most commonly used asbestos mineral, and is known for its curly fibers that can be easily woven into fabrics. Applications of chrysotile include drywall compound, plaster, vinyl floor tiles, roofing materials, acoustic ceilings, fireproofing, caulk, brake pads and shoes, stage curtains, fire blankets and dental cast linings.
Amosite and crocidolite are the other more common asbestos minerals used, though their application is not as extensive as chrysotile. Products manufactured out of these asbestos minerals include insulation board, ceiling tiles and casing for water services.
In the past ten years, trace amounts of asbestos have been found in talc, a leading ingredient in crayons.
Exposure and Health Risks
The extensive use of asbestos across many different industries exposes not only those individuals working in the manufacturing of raw asbestos or working with asbestos-related products, but also individuals who may have asbestos in their homes, churches or schools. Further, asbestos particles may cling to the clothing or hair of an individual working with asbestos and potentially contaminate others.
Though chrysotile is the most common form of asbestos used in products and is a known carcinogen, amosite and crocidolite asbestos are the most hazardous to health. All types of asbestos can linger in an individual’s lungs for many years after exposure, but amosite and crocidolite are the most persistent, lingering particles.
There is a higher risk for individuals working in asbestos-related environments, though many individuals with minimal exposure can also have damage that can lead to mesothelioma cancer or other diseases.
Although asbestos exposure may have hit its peak from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1970s, many individuals are still being subjected to asbestos particles. Arguably, the most recent and tragic mass exposure resulted from the attacks on 9/11, where tons of asbestos particles were released into the air, harming thousands of rescue workers and individuals living near Ground Zero. Diagnosed with asbestos cancer due to their prolonged, persistent exposure, many brave firefighters, police and rescue workers continue to suffer.
Further, many individuals continue to be exposed to asbestos in older homes. With the boom of Do-It-Yourself projects, many homeowners are tackling renovations without knowing the potential health risks. Attempting renovations in these environments may disturb asbestos causing it to become airborne and inhaled. Without knowledge of where asbestos may be located in these homes, there is a significant risk of accidental exposure, and any homeowner should have professional do a thorough inspection before any projects begin. Removal should always be handled by a professional contractor and should not be attempted by homeowners.
One of the groups hardest hit from asbestos-related diseases are America’s veterans. All branches of the United States military used equipment, gear and products laden with asbestos, unwittingly exposing young men and women between the 1940s and late 1970s. Most veterans repeatedly exposed to asbestos suffer from mesothelioma disease.
For over one hundred years, almost every product that we can come in contact with may have been produced with asbestos components. From decorative household items, to products manufactured to protect firefighters, to dental products, asbestos has been the silent, deadly part of recent American industry.
Asbestos Related Disease
Some research points to the fact that inhaled asbestos fibers cause a physical irritation resulting in mesothelioma rather than the cancer being caused by a reaction that is more chemical in nature. As fibers are inhaled through the mouth and nose they are cleared from the body by adhering to mucus in the nose, throat and airways and then get expelled by coughing or swallowing. The Amphibole fibers (long and thin) do not clear as easily and it is therefore thought that they can embed into the lining of the lungs, chest or stomach causing scarring and inflammation which increases the risk for mesothelioma cancer. Mesothelioma symptoms can be detected as early as ten years after exposure and can incubate as long as forty years.
Asbestosis (scar tissue in the lungs) or lung cancer can also be caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. In fact, people exposed to asbestos are seven times more likely to develop lung cancer over the general public. Workers who sustain high levels of asbestos exposure are more likely to die from asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma than any other disease. It is also believed that the action of coughing up and swallowing asbestos could contribute to a form of mesothelioma originating in the abdomen called peritoneal mesothelioma. This disease has been found to exist in other organs of the body as well such as the larynx, pancreas and colon, but those instances are extremely limited compared to lung cancer incidents.
The chance of developing mesothelioma is in direct proportion to the duration and amount of asbestos exposure that an individual sustains. Those who are exposed to high levels of asbestos at a young age, for long periods of time have a greater risk of being diagnosed with mesothelioma than those who have short, low level exposure. Another important consideration is that the mesothelioma latency period is very long. Often, twenty to forty years can elapse from the time of exposure to diagnosis. Genetic factors can also play a role which explains why not everyone exposed to asbestos develops an asbestos related disease.Sources
Mayo Clinic. Mesothelioma: Risk Factors. Accessed on November 2, 2010.
National Cancer Institute. Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk. Accessed on November 2, 2010.
World Health Organization. Asbestos-related diseases. Accessed on November 2, 2010.
World Health Organization. Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases. July 2010.