Asbestos Facts and Fallacies

If you have a loved one or know someone who has contracted an asbestos-related disease, and/or live in an area where asbestos contamination is known to be a problem, you may have some real fears about it. Such fears are understandable, but are often unfounded. There are many misconceptions about asbestos that cause people unnecessary concern.

For example, some people believe that asbestos diseases are only contracted by cigarette smokers. While it is true that tobacco use can greatly increase one’s chances of developing asbestos-related lung cancer, there are far more victims who never smoked a day in their lives. Another myth is that people who breathe in asbestos fibers can develop asbestosis within weeks. The truth is that under “normal” exposure–that is, exposure in the workplace–the latency period can be anywhere from 20 to 40 years. The first responders to the World Trade Center tragedy of 11 September 2001 were exceptional cases. Many of those workers did develop problems very quickly, but only because the exposure was so incredibly concentrated–and there were many other toxins in the air that day as well. Some people believe that asbestos exposure can cause headaches and muscle and/or joint soreness.

Asbestosis is a condition of the respiratory system that affects the lungs. While mesothelioma is known to spread to other parts of the body, most asbestos diseases normally affect the lungs. One of the most dangerous myths about asbestos is the idea that chrysotile or serpentine asbestos is somehow “safe.” This is information that Union Carbide, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, attempted to pass off to the public as “fact” when they marketed “Calidria” which was essentially chrysotile under a different name.

There are also those who believe that asbestos diseases are contagious. Again, this is understandable, considering that the families of asbestos workers were known to contract diseases themselves. However, this was because the workers had brought home asbestos fibers on their clothing and in their hair. Unlike viruses, asbestos fibers are inert, inorganic minerals; they cannot multiply and spread like hepatitis or the flu. Remember that virtually everyone on the planet has been exposed to asbestos to some degree. Nonetheless, it typically requires long-term, concentrated exposure in order to cause respiratory disease.