Asbestosis is caused by the inhalation of asbestos. Asbestos is a mineral that was used extensively until the mid 1970’s as an insulator and fire retardant. It comes in several colors depending on what mineral it is found with. White and brown asbestos are the two more dangerous colors, white being associated with magnesium, and brown being associated with grunerite and iron. There are two general types of asbestos, amphibole and chrysotile. While all asbestos is considered dangerous or even deadly, the most dangerous asbestos is composed of tiny fibers that are too small to be seen without the aid of a microscope, but that are very tough and difficult for the body to get rid of. These fibers are 50 microns or more long and 0.5 microns or less in circumference.
Everyone is exposed to some asbestos, but prolonged or heavy asbestos exposure builds up to cause serious problems within the body. In the past, before asbestos was regulated at all, the families of people who worked in the asbestos industry were frequently exposed to asbestos at high levels as a result of asbestos dust and fibers brought home by the worker on their clothes and shoes. There are still many occupations where workers come in contact with asbestos at some level.
These occupations include building contractors and workers who remediate old building where asbestos was heavily used, people working with brakes and clutches where asbestos is used because of its heat resistant properties, mining occupations, and people whose jobs require them to spend a lot of time around railroad yards or oil refineries. No group was or is harder hit by asbestos exposure than that of US Military veterans, with particular emphasis on veterans of the navy. Some statistics show that as many as 30% of those diagnosed with the deadly asbestos cancer known as mesothelioma (Particularly in its most common form – pleural mesothelioma) are former military personnel; the number of them that have developed the less severe, but no less painful or devastating, form of asbestos disease known as asbestosis is also quite large by comparison. Finally, people who live near plants that use any of the many forms of asbestos are also at risk of asbestos exposure related illnesses. Asbestosis is found in about 1 out of every 10,000 people.
The asbestos fibers, called amphiboles, travel down the trachea and into the lungs. Once in the lungs the fibers move into the small air sacks, or alveoli, where oxygen is transferred into the blood stream, and carbon dioxide is taken out of the blood stream to be exhaled. The lungs have special cells called macrophages whose purpose is to destroy any foreign matter that is inhaled into the lungs, whether it is dust, pollen, or in this case, asbestos fibers. There are also hair-like fibers that try to push foreign substances out of the lungs far enough that the body can expel them by coughing. Because asbestos fibers imbed themselves in the lungs’ lining and because they get so deep into the lungs, coughing does not get rid of all the fibers. Likewise, because asbestos fibers are very fine, but also quite long, the microphages cannot completely cover them. As a result, when the macrophage cells attempt to break down the asbestos fibers, some of the liquid they produce escapes the confining walls of the macrophage. The liquid then irritates the alveoli causing it the alveoli to become inflamed. In turn, the on-going irritation causes scar tissue to build up in the alveoli. As more and more scar tissue builds up the lungs become stiff, and unable to function efficiently at providing oxygen for the blood stream, and unable to efficiently remove carbon dioxide.
The scar tissue continues to build up until it has reached a level where it is recognized as pulmonary fibrosis. At this point the lungs are dry and crackly and the person suffering from asbestosis experiences shortness of breath and chest pain. Initially the shortness of breath is primarily a problem when the person is exercising or otherwise exerting himself, but gradually worsens until even at rest the person cannot get enough air to breathe comfortably.
If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with asbestosis or pulmonary fibrosis, it is extremely important that you seek regular checkups with your doctor to ensure that this condition does not develop into one of the several cancers that are caused by asbestos, such as malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer, or potentially even cancer of the colon.