Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral that is found in several different forms. It has been used for centuries, from the Romans and Greeks who used asbestos fiber in everything from building materials to cloth for clothing, to fire and sound proofing tiles used today. White asbestos, or chrysotile, brown asbestos, or amosite, and blue asbestos, or crocidolite are the three types of asbestos found most commonly within the United States. Asbestos is known for being strong, and almost entirely heat resistant.
Use of asbestos is not banned within the United States, but since the 1970’s it has been heavily regulated because of its carcinogenic properties and the other health problems it causes. Asbestos is not as highly regulated outside the United States, and imported goods frequently contain asbestos fibers even today. Additionally, asbestos can be released into the air when old buildings that used asbestos extensively both as an insulator and as a fire retardant are demolished or remodeled. Since asbestos is a naturally occurring substance it is frequently associated with the rock and gravel used in road making. As recently as the past few years, health officials have recognized that disturbing the top layer of gravel on these roads can release asbestos fibers into the air. Just recently the State of California changed its regulations on road gravel to reduce the amount of asbestos allowed from 5% to under a quarter of one percent.
Even the ancient Greeks and Romans recognized that asbestos was harmful to the health of people who were around it. Scholars in both ancient civilizations wrote about the lung problems of the slaves who worked with asbestos the most. The first diagnosis of asbestosis was made in England, in 1924 following the death of a 36 year old asbestos worker.
Asbestos is made up of strands of very fine fibers. Tiny portions of these fibers can flake off and become airborne where they can be inhaled by any person in the area. Some of the fibers are stopped by the mucous in the nose and expelled; others may be coughed out. But some fibers make it into the trachea. As the trachea enters the chest cavity it splits into two parts one part entering each lung. The asbestos fibers go into the lung and make their way to the alveoli. The alveoli are the spaces in the lung where waste carbon dioxide in the blood stream is replaced by oxygen. When the asbestos fiber enters the alveoli, cells are produced by the body to eliminate the foreign substance. The cells engulf the asbestos fiber and produce a fluid that eliminates the fiber. Because the fibers are sometimes too long for the cell to entirely engulf, some of the fluid leaks onto the alveoli tissue. That tissue then becomes inflamed, and with prolonged exposure forms scar tissue. As the scar tissue builds up, it is called asbestosis.
Asbestosis frequently doesn’t show up for decades after initial exposure, and initially has no symptoms. Over time as the alveoli lose the ability to exchange the carbon dioxide and oxygen, and as the lungs become stiff from all the scar tissue, breathing becomes more and more difficult and painful. There is no cure for asbestosis, but doctors can treat the worst of the symptoms with medication and administration of oxygen. Unfortunately asbestosis can also lead to other more serious medical conditions such as pulmonary hypertension, heart failure andmesothelioma, an asbestos cancer of the tissue that makes up the lining of the lungs.