Asbestos is a cancerous material, and exposure to it may result in later development of diseases such as benign pleural effusion, pleural plaques, diffuse pleural thickening, rounded atelectasis, asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. Most exposure to asbestos has occurred occupationally. However, people have also been exposed to asbestos through common household products, old buildings, and by indirect contact from loved ones who have work with asbestos directly and have carried home asbestos dust on their clothing.
Although the manufacturing of asbestos products has been greatly reduced in the United States due to increasing governmental regulations since the late 1970's, asbestos still remains present today in old structures, buildings, and even warships that were built before this time. For this reason and due to the long latency period between the initial symptoms of the disease and diagnosis, asbestos-related disease still remains a serious public health hazard.
Asbestosis is one of many diseases categorized as an “environmental lung disease” or “occupational lung disease”. It is a lung condition referred to as diffuse pulmonary fibrosis. Asbestosis results from coming in contact with asbestos and inhaling its deadly fibers into your lungs. These asbestos fibers, once inhaled, accumulate in the lung tissue, thus distinguishing it from other fibrotic diseases. Additionally, asbestos fibers have been found in small numbers beyond the lungs; such as the tonsils, thoracic and abdominal lymph nodes, pleura, peritoneum, pancreas, spleen, kidneys, liver, stomach, esophagus, small and large intestines. This disease is progressive and irreversible in nature and typically leads to subsequent respiratory disability. In most severe cases, asbestosis may even lead to death from pulmonary hypertension and cardiac failure.
Any accumulation of dust in the lungs, whether is asbestos or not, is referred to as “pneumoconiosis”. Pneumoconiosis also refers to the pathologic response of the human body to the presence of the accumulated dust in the lungs, which results in asbestosis. Some of the symptoms of asbestosis are; shortness of breath, dry cough, X-Ray changes, and pulmonary function deficiencies. The latency period for asbestosis is generally several decades and it can occur in individuals exposed to large amounts of any of the three commercial forms of asbestos (chrysotile, amosite, or crocidolite) for extended periods of time. This disease may also develop even if the exposure was as brief as three years or less, if the level of exposure was heavy. There are also two other types of asbestos, which are non-commercial, and they are amphibole and anthophyllite.
The term Mesothelioma is used to describe a cancerous tumor that involves the “mosothelial” cells of an organ, usually the lungs, heart or abdominal organs.
Mesothelioma is classified into two types, pleural and peritoneal. Pleural
mesothelioma is the most common type and it is a very rare and aggressive form of lung cancer. The “pleura” is a thin membrane found between the lungs and the chest cavity, which serves as a lubricant to prevent the lungs from chafing against the chest walls. Peritoneal esothelioma, although less common, is more invasive and therefore results in a shorter life expectancy for the patient. Mesotheliomas have also been found in other abdominal organs.
As with other types of cancer, there are benign and malignant mesothelioma. The most common of the two is by far the diffuse malignant pleural mesothelioma. This particular type of tumor is very aggressive and invasive, spreading quickly over the surface of the lungs, abdominal organs or heart. Depending at which stage this disease is detected and the general health and strength of the patient, the life expectancy for the victims is between four and twenty-four months. The average person diagnosed with this aggressive type of tumor survives for between four and twelve months from the onset of symptoms. These symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and sleeping, pain in the chest and abdominal regions, progressive loss of weight and appetite and pleural effusions (fluid in the chest cavity). However, some victims have survived for several years with the proper treatment.
Smoking is by far the leading cause of lung cancer. Tobacco smoke causes more than 8 out of 10 cases of lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Tobacco products contain harmful carcinogens (cancer causing agents) that can damage the cells in the lungs. The longer a person has been smoking and the more cigarettes a day smoked, the greater the chances are of contracting lung cancer. Exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke, which is called involuntary or passive smoking, can also increase the risk of developing lung cancer. If a person stops smoking before lung cancer develops, the lung tissue slowly returns to normal.
Even though smoking is mostly responsible for causing lung cancer, it is not the sole cause of it. Asbestos exposure can also cause lung cancer. People who work with asbestos are already in danger of getting lung cancer, and by smoking, the risk is greatly increased. Although the manufacturing of asbestos has slowed down significantly due to government regulations, it is still present in some products and old buildings. However, if left undisturbed, asbestos poses no danger. Asbestos is only dangerous when it has been disturbed and its raw form (fibers) is released into the air and breathed in.