According to stats by Asbestos Nation, asbestos kills around 12,000 to 15,000 people every year. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that exists in fibrous form and is resistant to chemicals, heat, and electricity.
Asbestos has been used in dozens of occupations, like construction for decades. It’s also a well known health hazard, is highly regulated by OSHA, and protections for asbestos is part of OSHA general industry training.
Why is Asbestos Dangerous?
There are six types of asbestos and all of them possess similar characteristics. They are odorless, tasteless, and cannot be detected with the naked eye. All of these properties make it difficult to determine the risk of exposure.
Because of its heat resistance capabilities and fiber strength, asbestos has been used in a variety of construction materials, like roofing and siding shingles. When these materials are damaged or disturbed in any way (e.g. during construction), fibers are released into the air. These fibers can lead to serious diseases once they are inhaled.
The material has been used in thousands of commercial products and those working with these products are at risk the most. The effects of daily exposure over the span of a career can lead many workers to develop asbestos-related diseases.
Other factors that can determine the likelihood of workers developing asbestos-related diseases include:
- Smoking: Smokers who are exposed to asbestos have weaker lungs and are therefore more likely to develop asbestos-related diseases.
- The Duration and Amount of Exposure: The longer and more you are exposed to the material, the higher the damage that fibers do to your body.
- Children: Children of workers exposed to asbestos may end up inhaling its fibers as well.
Here are several diseases workers can develop due to asbestos exposure:
Mesothelioma cancer is commonly associated with asbestos exposure. When asbestos fibers are disturbed, airborne, and ingested or inhaled, they can become lodged in the pleura lining of the lungs, heart, or abdomen. Once lodged, they can develop scar tissue in the body. These tissues can eventually turn into tumors over the course of 10 to 15 years after exposure.
In general, a mesothelioma diagnosis can be classified as any of three types of cancers:
- Pleural Mesothelioma: This is considered one of the most common types of asbestos-related cancers and occurs in the lining of the lungs. Since the disease damages the lungs, it affects the respiratory system. Workers who develop the disease may exhibit symptoms like shortness of breath and chest pain.
- Peritoneal Mesothelioma: This type of cancer is rare but workers exposed to asbestos are still at risk of contracting it. Peritoneal mesothelioma occurs in the peritoneum (abdominal lining) with symptoms often occurring in the gastrointestinal system.
- Pericardial Mesothelioma: This is the rarest of the three types of cancers caused by asbestos and develops in the pericardium (lining around the heart). The prognosis for this is usually poor and most cases are only diagnosed after an autopsy. Workers with this cancer may exhibit symptoms like a varying pulse, heart murmur, arrhythmia, and chest pain.
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. These fibers irritate the lungs and make them go stiff. As the disease progresses, the lungs become more scarred and impairs them from expanding and contracting normally. In time, breathing becomes difficult. Other symptoms associated with the disease include the following:
- Reduced lung volume
- Strain on heart muscles
Asbestos can also lead to ovarian cancer in women. This was proved in a study in which fibers were found in the ovaries of women exposed to the material.
Exposure to asbestos does not necessarily cause COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), but it can increase the risk of a person developing it. The condition makes lungs weaker, which means that workers who have it are more susceptible to developing lung diseases later.
Asbestos exposure remains a source of health problems to this day. It’s therefore important for employers and workers to know the risks involved. Additionally, employers must train and provide adequate protection to workers who are exposed to asbestos.