Asbestos is a mineral that has been used for centuries for its extreme resistance to heat and fire. As early as during the Roman Empire, however, people noticed that those who worked most with asbestos had problems with their lungs. In the early 1900’s studies done primarily in England confirmed that asbestos fibers and dust cause lung damage when inhaled. Despite this knowledge, regulations on asbestos didn’t really start getting implemented until the 1970’s, and although more than 40 countries around the world have banned asbestos as a health hazard; it is still used in the United States.
California recently passed legislation reducing the amount of asbestos allowed in road making materials from the previous regulation. There is also a bill that recently passed at the committee level. The bill will be presented to Congress this fall and would effectively ban asbestos in the United States within the next two years if it gets signed into law.
Asbestos dust is very fine, so fine that in many instances it can only be seen with a microscope. These fine fibers become airborne very easily, and can then be inhaled by anyone in the area. When the fibers enter the lungs the body tries to reject them by coughing, and other natural processes. Asbestos resists expulsion more than many other substances, and as exposure builds up, the asbestos creates many health problems, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and malignant mesothelioma.
For many environmental hazards, exposure is limited to the work environment. People think of workers in the asbestos industry as being exposed to all the health risks, but generally do not consider the workers’ families. Unfortunately, the very fine nature of asbestos dust allows it to cling to the clothing and shoes of the workers. Particularly in the 1900’s through the 1980’s, asbestos workers often unknowingly exposed their families to asbestos, and therefore asbestos related diseases such as asbestosisand mesothelioma, when they wore their work clothes home.
Doing laundry, or just moving the clothing around could cause asbestos dust to rise into the air where the spouses and children of asbestos workers breathed it in. Similarly, people who live near asbestos mines have had high exposure rates just from asbestos in the air of their community. Libby, Montana is a horrible example. A vermiculite mine in the community also contained asbestos. In 1999, the community found out that their entire community was contaminated, and potentially anyone who lived there, even the smallest children, had been exposed to asbestos. Thus these people, removed from the actual workplace, still suffered from asbestos exposure and potentially from the diseases it causes.
The most deadly of the asbestos related diseases is the asbestos cancer malignant mesothelioma, with the majority of diagnosed patients living less than one year after the initial mesothelioma diagnosis. The most common form of malignant mesothelioma is pleural mesothelioma, which is a cancer of the pleura, the lining of the lungs and chest. The tumor can take between 20 and 40 years to develop following exposure to asbestos. Since, during the early stages of the cancer, few if any of the traditional mesothelioma symptoms reveal themselves, most tumors grow undetected until treatment becomes very difficult. Surgical removal works best, but once it has spread and cannot be surgically removed, chemotherapy and radiation primarily treat the symptoms and slow down the inevitable progression of the cancer.
Given the severity of asbestos related problems, anyone who has been exposed to asbestos should seek a medical exam with a doctor familiar with the signs and symptoms of various asbestos related diseases. Since the risk of passive exposure is so high, even family members of asbestos industry workers should keep a very close watch on their health and get regular checkups.