Until 1989, asbestos was widely used in industry and in construction. It is also a naturally-occurring mineral. Thus, almost everyone is exposed to some amount of asbestos during his or her lifetime.
The more asbestos one is exposed to, the greater the risk of developing a health complication such as asbestosis, or an asbestos cancer like lung cancer or mesothelioma. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are a number of issues that impact how a person may be affected by exposure to asbestos. These include the amount of asbestos exposure, the amount of time; the type of asbestos fibers, and the health and habits of the individual, such as whether or not s/he smokes.
Different types of asbestos fibers can lead to various medical conditions and risks to an individual’s health. There are two forms of asbestos fibers: amphibole, which are described by the American Cancer Society as “thin, rod-like fibers,” and chrysotile, which are described as “curly and pliable” (2). Research shows that the amphibole type of asbestos may be more likely than the chrysotile type to cause mesothelioma. The reason for this is that the amphibole fibers stay in the lungs for longer. Other research shows that the threat posed by asbestos fibers is determined by their length and diameter.
Exposure to asbestos can cause a number of health conditions, including lung cancer, malignant mesothelioma (a form of cancer that affects the membrane covering the body’s internal organs), and non-malignant lung conditions. Some research has shown that asbestos exposure increases the risk of developing gastrointestinal, colorectal, throat, kidney, esophagus and gallbladder cancers, although this link has not been definitively established.
The lung conditions that asbestos exposure can lead to include asbestosis, which is a form of chronic lung disease that leads to coughing, damage to the lungs and shortness of breath. Asbestosis typically affects those who have been exposed to higher levels of asbestos and can take up to 15 years to develop. Symptoms of asbestosis include being short of breath; a cough that produces mucus; pain and/or tightness in the chest; reduced appetite; and a distinct “dry, crackling” sound when one inhales. When asbestos builds up in the lungs it creates scar-type tissue in the lungs and the membrane around the lungs. This scar-like tissue makes it difficult to breathe and can reduce blood flow to the lungs and thus make the heart larger. Because it is a slowly progressive disease, asbestosis can get more advanced over time. It can be asymptomatic, or it can make it very difficult for people to be active. In the most serious cases, asbestosis can lead to death.
Exposure also causes people to develop pleural plaque, which can involve calcification of the membrane around the lungs and changes to the membrane around the lungs. This condition, which does not severely impact breathing, typically affects those who have been exposed to asbestos in lower levels and those who live near places where asbestos occurs naturally in high levels. Asbestos exposure can also lead to pleural thickening and pleural effusions, which is the buildup of fluid between the chest wall and the tissue that lines the lungs.
The most serious conditions caused by exposure to asbestos are two forms of asbestos cancer: lung cancer, which affects the tissue of the lung; and mesothelioma, a cancer which affects the membrane surrounding the body’s internal organs. These types of cancer often develop 15 years or more after the initial exposure. They are aggressive and, particularly in the most common form, pleural mesothelioma, often fatal.
Lung cancer involves a tumor that originates from the lung tissue. The combination of asbestos exposure and smoking significantly increases the risk of a person’s developing lung cancer. Symptoms of lung cancer include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing up blood, losing weight, and chest pain. If cancer has spread to the bones, patients can have pain. If it has spread to the brain, neurologic symptoms can occur. There are two types of lung cancer, which describe the size and type of cancer cells: non-small cell and small-cell. Non-small cell cancer accounts for approximately 80% of lung cancer cases and small-cell accounts for approximately 20% of cases. The type of cancer that one has determines the best treatment. Lung cancer can be treated through chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, depending on the type of cancer, the stage at which it was detected and a patient’s wishes.
Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive form of cancer that is primarily caused by exposure to asbestos. Workplace exposure to asbestos is a primary cause of this disease; as the use of asbestos in the United States has almost ceased since 1989, the numbers of people being exposed to asbestos has been significantly reduced. The condition develops slowly and generally presents between 15 – 50 years after the initial exposure. Symptoms of mesothelioma include being out of breath, cough, chest pain, exhaustion and coughing up blood.
There are several types of mesothelioma: pleural mesothelioma, which affects the pleura, or chest wall lining; peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the abdominal wall; pericardial mesothelioma, which affects the sac surrounding the heart; and tunica vaginalis mesothelioma, a rare form of mesothelioma that affects the tissue surrounding the testis in males. This disease is treated through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, experimental therapies (such as immunotherapy) or some combination thereof. It is considered a difficult condition to treat and is very often fatal.
There is a debate about whether asbestos exposure contributes to the risk of developing nonrespiratory forms of cancer. Some research has shown a link between asbestos exposure in the workplace and gastrointestinal, colorectal, brain, bladder, kidney and laryngeal cancers. However, other research studies have failed to demonstrate a clear relationship between asbestos exposure and these forms of cancer.
Patient advocacy groups and cancer experts such as the American Cancer Society recommend that those who know they were exposed to asbestos work with a physician to closely monitor their respiratory health on a regular basis. Individuals are also advised to reduce other risk factors for developing cancer and respiratory conditions, such as smoking.