Ultimate Guide to Asbestos Exposure
We all know that asbestos is bad for us. Most of us know that it causes cancer. Some of us know that it’s still far more common than we’re led to believe, given its terrible reputation. But not many of us know where it’s commonly found, exactly why it’s dangerous and who’s at risk, and how to prevent or treat exposure.This guide is here to save the day. We’ll take an in-depth look at what asbestos is, why it’s used, where you might encounter it and how you can stay safe if you do, the dangers it poses and the symptoms that result, and where you can get more information.
If you’ve wondered whether you or a loved one is at risk for asbestos exposure, have wondered how to keep yourself safer or just want to know more about this substance, this guide is for you.
What is Asbestos?
Due to its rap as an incredibly unsafe material responsible for untold deaths and a high rate of disease in those exposed, you might assume asbestos is a toxic chemical manufactured in a lab. However, asbestos is actually a naturally occurring mineral. Due to its native tendency to form long, thin, microscopic fibers that trap heat, it makes an excellent insulating material, especially when combined with the fact that it does not conduct electricity.
In addition to being insulating and non-conducting, asbestos is also resistant to fire and chemical damage. It doesn’t corrode, and is very durable. That’s why it is so useful as a household and commercial insulator, and why it has in fact been used since ancient times.
It is important to distinguish between asbestos as the naturally occurring material and asbestos as the fiber used in residences, commercial establishments, buildings and a wide variety of industrial applications (which we will talk more about below). While experts agree there is no “safe” level of asbestos exposure, in the amounts you would normally encounter it in nature, you would be unlikely to suffer damage or disease. It is only at the unnaturally concentrated levels which people face in factories, homes and schools that it becomes a problem.
This leads us to an important discussion, which is where you are most likely to encounter asbestos in the world, and how best to go about avoiding it.
Asbestos Types and Where to Find It
Due to its natural insulating properties, asbestos has been used heavily in a range of applications for hundreds (and in much smaller doses, thousands) of years. Its main applications, though, are in the construction and automotive industries. Before we discuss where asbestos is most commonly used, however, let’s first address the various types of this mineral and their construction.
Serpentine and Amphibole Asbestos
There are two main types of asbestos: serpentine and amphibole, and are separated into the categories depending on the shape of the fiber.
Serpentine fibers are long and flexible and twist around one another to form a spiral. This type of asbestos is more useful as insulation and therefore forms 95 percent of commercial use. There is only one type of the serpentine category, and it is called chrysotile asbestos.
The amphibole group, on the other hand, contains five types of asbestos, the most common of which are amosite and crocodilite. These fibers are shaped more like the crystals you’re used to seeing, long, straight and rod-like. These fibers only account for 5 percent of commercial use.
Common Industry Applications
Unfortunately, encountering asbestos is not nearly as uncommon as you might hope it is. While the United States put several stringent asbestos regulations in place in the latter half of the 20th century, it is still used in other countries to this day and its import to the United States is not banned. Plus, asbestos is commonly found in domestic industrial or residential construction from past decades.
The most common places to encounter asbestos today is in homes and cars, where frequently it is still in place. It has been used in the manufacture of boilers, heating systems, pipes, brake pads, clutches, electrical wire, chemical containers, heat-protective pads, flooring materials, vinyl tile, roofing materials, insulation, adhesives, sealants.
This means occupational risks are still present. Furthermore, asbestos, contrary to general belief, is not banned in the United States. Most asbestos still being used in the United States is imported and can be found in:
- Brake pads
- Automobile clutches
- Roofing materials
- Vinyl tile
- Cement pipe
We will talk below about who is at highest risk of exposure to asbestos, but the short answer is everyone. It is important when buying an older house, for instance, to make sure it is thoroughly inspected to ensure that asbestos is either absent or (commonly for older houses) contained with obstructive material that keeps it in place. It is even more important to understand the dangers associated with asbestos before you take a job in which you might come into contact with it.
Dangers and Diseases
It became clear in the early part of the 20th century, after decades of using asbestos in building and industrial operations, that there was a strong link between asbestos exposure and cancer. Researchers frequently observed during autopsies that long-term exposure resulted in lung scarring and tumors.
Nevertheless, major industries continued to rely on asbestos because it was both useful, convenient and cost-effective. It’s peak use in the United States kicked off with the end of World War II, and continued until 1975, when the government recognized its dangers and stepped in to protect construction workers, shipbuilders, auto parts manufacturers and others who had a high level of exposure and risk. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a final ruling banning most – but not all – products containing asbestos. Sadly, this ban was partially lifted in 1991, but new forms of asbestos use remain banned.
Asbestos-Related Health Problems
Asbestos has the reputation it does because it is so heavily associated with a variety of serious diseases. Most likely you’ve heard that asbestos causes cancer, which it does by a somewhat complex mechanism. First we will break down how asbestos causes problems in the lungs, and then we will discuss specific dangers and diseases associated with it.
Because asbestos fibers are so small and brittle (usually microscopic in size), they break easily and become airborne. This can happen during installation of insulation, scraping, breaking, removing insulation and other high- or even low-impact activities that release asbestos into the air. These small, airborne fibers get inhaled by workers (even when they’re wearing protective masks) and enter the lungs. While many of the fibers do get exhaled once more, enough of them remain in the lungs to cause problems.
These small fibers move to the extremities of the airways in the lungs, lodging in the lining that surrounds them and separates them from the rest of the chest cavity. This sensitive lining is called the pleura, and fibers lodged in it cause swelling, irritation and inflammation that can lead to long-term problems. Severe scarring of the lining of the lungs is called asbestosis.
Asbestos also causes cancer, according to a complex process in which asbestos both kills healthy lung cells and causes cancer. This seems like something of a paradox, since it is living cells that grow out of control to form a tumor, but it actually isn’t. What happens is that when asbestos kills healthy cells, it actually does so by causing them to kill themselves through a process called “programmed cell necrosis,” in which cells die off according to rules written into our genetic programming.
Unfortunately, when asbestos causes those cells to die, they release a substance called high-mobility group box 1 protein (HMGB1), which promotes a certain type of inflammation that in turn leads to mutated cells and often to tumors.
The danger of asbestos exposure causing cancer, healthy cell death, and lung scarring and inflammation increases with the amount of exposure to it. Although, again, there is no “safe” level of asbestos exposure, it definitely becomes more dangerous the more you interact with the substance, even if you’re wearing protective gear. However, among people who only encounter asbestos once or twice in passing, the danger of developing serious diseases is fairly low. Among people who regularly come into contact with it, the rates are much higher. We will talk in the section “Who’s At Risk?” about which professions are likeliest to bring asbestos exposure risks.
Asbestos Exposure Levels and Resulting Diseases
Because asbestos is a naturally occurring element, you don’t need to worry about coming into contact with it while in a natural environment. In the small amounts in which it occurs in nature 0.00001 to 0.0001 fibers per milliliter (fibers/mL), there’s nothing to worry about. However, in the higher doses in which it can be encountered in residential or industrial settings (0.125 to 30 fibers/mL), it is much more dangerous and is much likelier to cause disease. Still, many people can be exposed and still not get sick. Scientists do not yet understand why some people get sick and some don’t, or what the lowest “dangerous” asbestos dose actually is.
That said, multiple leading health authorities have taken pains to reiterate that there is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos of any type. These authorities include:
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
- The World Health Organization (WHO)
- The International Labour Organization (ILO)
Any level of exposure can result in deadly disease. These diseases include:
- Lung cancer
- Asbestosis, or scarring of the lung lining
- Mesothelioma, a cancer damaging the lining of several internal organs
- Pleural plaque, or thickening of lining around the lungs and diaphragm
- Pleural effusion, or liquid buildup in this lining
The most common causes of death among those exposed to asbestos are mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. According to the Mesothelioma Group, “researchers estimate that 10 million people will die from an asbestos-related disease by 2030.”
Currently, researchers believe that all types of abestos are capable of causing cancer by scarring the lungs and causing cell death. Additionally, the fibers themselves are toxic, carcinogens capable of causing the mutations and uncontrolled cell growth that lead to tumors and death.
Despite some efforts on the part of special interest groups (notably the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association, which funded a study by Quebec Asbestos Mining Association) in support of asbestos to prove that chrysotile asbestos is safe, there is compelling evidence showing that both asbestos groups are markedly unsafe. While chrysotile are curly and therefore don’t enter and penetrate the lungs quite as easily as the rod-like amphibole fibers, both are capable of causing cancer.
It is important to note that while many people who are exposed do not end up developing an asbestos-related disease, everyone who has been exposed is at risk. Most likely a combination of environment, genetic predisposition and general lifestyle account for who ends up getting sick and who does not.
Recognizing the Symptoms
Asbestos is a particularly dangerous substance because it does not give warning signs when dangerous levels of exposure are occurring. People whose exposure occurred as far back as the 1960s and 1980s are currently receiving diagnoses of asbestos-related cancers, pleural plaque and effusion, and other diseases that lead to death.
However, there are indications that you may have been exposed to asbestos and be experiencing one of the related diseases. We will look at these individually.
Scarring of the delicate lung lining by asbestos fibers typically results in coughing, hacking, facial and neck swelling, a crackling sound when inhaling or exhaling, and difficulty swallowing. Because scar tissue is not nearly as effective at helping you breathe as lung tissue, its buildup within and around the lungs can also cause difficulty getting enough air. Shortness of breath in turn can contribute to hypertension. Other symptoms include deformation of the fingers, loss of weight and loss of appetite.
Unfortunately, this disease mirrors many other lung diseases, and often has symptoms that are quite mild, making it harder for doctors to detect the disease in patients until they reach the end of their lives. That makes it extra important to be cautious about these symptoms and get them checked out. Main symptoms of mesothelioma include coughing and wheezing, shortness of breath, chest and abdominal pain, fever and anemia, muscle weakness and/or pleural effusion.
Symptoms for lung cancer are a little clearer, and may include coughing or hacking up blood or rust-colored sputum, chest pain associated with deep breathing or laughing, hoarseness, weight loss, fatigue and weakness, chronic lung infections and wheezing. If lung cancer spreads, or metastasizes, to other organs, you may notice bone pain, jaundice, headache, dizziness, numbness, seizures and/or swelling of lymph nodes.
Sadly, these conditions typically have a short life expectancy, with those diagnosed rarely living for more than 5 years. That is why it’s so critical that you get checked out as soon as you notice any of these symptoms.
Additionally, the substance HMGB1, which we discussed above, may be able to provide a clue to who has been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos. Although this research is in its infancy, researchers have identified that those with high exposure levels also have high levels of HMGB1 in their serum. Therefore testing for high levels of HMGB1 may be able to indicate who has been exposed and provide a path to treatment. That is still a ways in the future, however.
Given the short life expectancies associated with these diseases and the difficulty treating them once diagnosed (though we will talk about possible treatments later), it is also important that you understand who is most at risk so you can either avoid those professions or take the proper precautions to stay as safe as possible.
Who Is at Risk?
Those who are at the highest levels of risk are those who work in areas of poor ventilation and high exposures to asbestos fibers. Because asbestos is “friable,” meaning it breaks easily and can be borne on the air, it is altogether too easy for it to enter delicate human lungs and become lodged. While recognition of its damaging qualities in the early parts of the 20th century did lead to better ventilation standards in the latter half of that century, it is still very dangerous to work around it.
Particular activities that cause asbestos to enter the air include cutting, scraping, sanding, breaking, removing, repairing or installing objects, materials or structures that contain asbestos of either type. Since you cannot see asbestos fibers with the eye, there is no way to tell if it is in the air, either, making it even more dangerous.
While asbestos is still frequently found in homes, it is usually fairly well contained. The biggest danger of asbestos exposure comes on the job. Whether the levels of exposure are high or low, researchers have found, long-term exposure still constitutes a major health threat. Living near an asbestos mine or processing plant is also dangerous, and should be avoided where possible.
With that said, let’s take a look at who is most at risk of asbestos-related diseases.
Because asbestos is so useful in industrial applications, the military used it for decades in shipbuilding efforts, construction of military bases, and fabrication of aircraft and other vehicles. Veterans of all branches of the American military are at risk, but especially those who served up until 1970, during which time asbestos use was very common.
Asbestos Miners and Plant Workers
As stated, asbestos is a natural substance and must be mined and processed in order to be used in residential, commercial and industrial applications. Miners who interact with friable asbestos every day, whether in the mine or in the processing plants that turn it into its usable form, are at extremely high risk of inhaling the carcinogenic microscopic fibers. While asbestos isn’t mined in the U.S. anymore, anyone who was exposed up until the 1970s is at risk, as well as people who have worked in still-operational mines in Russia, China or Brazil.
While asbestos is no longer put to “new uses,” as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, it is still installed in many homes and commercial buildings throughout the United States. That means workers who repair, renovate or remodel older homes, especially those constructed before the 1980s, are at work of asbestos exposure. Particularly problematic materials include flooring, tiling and insulation.
Many auto parts were made with asbestos in the United States in previous decades, and imported parts may still contain them. Auto workers who routinely come into contact with these parts – including clutches and brake pads – are at high risk of exposure and possibly long-term disease.
Like construction workers, realtors are regularly exposed to a huge variety of different homes in various states of repair. Because so many homes built before 1980 contain asbestos in multiple forms, there is a good chance that as a realtor you may have come repeatedly into contact with asbestos.
Teachers and students
Sadly, asbestos was for a long time used in the construction of schools, which means that those built before 1980 most likely do have asbestos in them. Like with many homes, the recommended action when asbestos is present is to try to wall it off rather than exposing and removing it, as this causes significantly greater release of dangerous particles into the air.
Because firefighters so frequently encounter homes and buildings that are being destroyed, it is quite common for them to come into contact with airborne asbestos. While asbestos is not flammable, the strong forces caused by fire whip up high levels of asbestos into the air. While firefighters do have lung protection, those that breathe in that air can become endangered.
Reports of coughing, hacking, chest pain and trouble breathing were rampant among people who helped rescue individuals during the 9/11 attacks and later helped with cleanup efforts. The collapse of the towers released large amounts of asbestos into the air, and those who were on site during that time likely received high levels of exposure.
Limiting Asbestos Exposure
You can limit your asbestos exposure in many ways. While many of these techniques for limiting exposure apply in a range of settings, the guidelines depend on whether you are at work, at school or at home. While the biggest danger for workers on-the-job exposure, the biggest risk at home is that homeowners frequently do their own renovations or hire others to do them, and may inadvertently put themselves at risk of releasing asbestos. Let’s take a closer look at each situation.
Asbestos on the Job
Because new use of asbestos is limited and companies in the United States today are very aware of the dangers it poses, workplaces are now safer when it comes to exposure. However, in order to maintain a high level of safety, you must ensure you always follow the rules and regulations as posed by your individual workplace and by large regulatory bodies such as OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Luckily this isn’t guesswork. Jobs that pose a risk of asbestos exposure are divided into several classes for construction and shipyard workers – the most likely individuals to be exposed today – to help you determine what your risk of exposure is and what to do about it. These are the classes as defined by OSHA:
- Class I asbestos work is the most potentially hazardous class of asbestos jobs. This work involves the removal of asbestos-containing thermal system insulation and sprayed-on or troweled-on surfacing materials.
- Class II work includes the removal of other types of ACM that are not thermal system insulation such as resilient flooring and roofing materials.
- Class III asbestos work includes repair and maintenance operations where ACM or presumed ACM (PACM) are disturbed.
- Class IV work includes custodial activities where employees clean up asbestos-containing waste and debris produced by construction, maintenance, or repair activities.
Additionally, each class comes with attendant federally mandated safety guidelines, which state that employers must create controlled zones to protect employees while they’re working with asbestos. Understanding the class you’re in as well as the rules surrounding the controlled zones gives you a better chance of spotting or reporting a problem and ensuring your health is respected.
Teachers and students are both at risk of asbestos exposure due to the aforementioned use of asbestos in nearly all American school. The EPA regulates the attention of public and non-profit schools to potential asbestos dangers, however, through the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA). This requires that schools inspect their premises every three years, create management plans for potentially necessary asbestos removal and do everything in their power to decrease the dangers to teachers and students.
If you work in a school or have a child in a school, and are worried that guidelines are not being respected, you can visit the AHERA web page to learn more.
Asbestos at Home
Unfortunately, there is no way to look at something and tell if it contains asbestos, which means it’s very important you do not disturb materials in your home unless you are absolutely certain you know what they are. The EPA recommends leaving asbestos intact and covered up, since as with schools, that is the best way to keep it out of the air.
While most homeowners are not at daily risk of asbestos exposure, you should never rehab your own home if you don’t know whether or not there is asbestos in it. Drilling, scraping, shattering or otherwise altering the floors, walls, ceilings or other construction elements of your home can release trapped asbestos and endanger you, your family and/or your pets, so always consult an expert before renovating your home unless you’re very familiar with the process yourself.
If an inspector identifies unsafe asbestos that you want to remove, call an accredited professional to make a removal process and get it out of your home as safely as possible.
Asbestos and Smoking
When paired with asbestos exposure, smoking “can increase the risk of asbestos-related diseases up to 90 percent in some cases,” according to the Mesothelioma Center. If you believe you or a loved one may have been exposed to asbestos at some point and would like to minimize the impact of such exposure, it is imperative that you stop smoking immediately and seek treatment for both the addicion and the asbestos exposure.
Treating Asbestos Exposure
As discussed above, by the time you are diagnosed with a disease related to asbestos exposure, it is frequently too late to get treated and your life expectancy may be relatively short. Because symptoms frequently don’t manifest for decades after exposure to asbestos, it is imperative to be on the lookout for early symptoms, and to see a doctor for a diagnosis even if you aren’t sure whether or not you’ve been exposed. Treatments for various asbestos related cancers include:
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy
In the case that treatment will not help ameliorate the disease, palliative treatment offers pain relief and makes the affected individual more comfortable for the remainder of their life. No matter what stage you may be in if you have an asbestos-related disease, it is always a good idea to see a doctor as soon as possible, which will markedly expand your treatment options.
Where to Find More Information
If you would like to learn even more about asbestos than this comprehensive guide provides, we suggest looking to authoritative government websites for specific research and recommendations about your particular situation. A few helpful sites include:
- The Environmental Protection Agency
- The Occupational Safety & Health Administration
- National Cancer Institute
Keep in mind that while asbestos can be very dangerous to those who have been exposed, living a healthy lifestyle and taking possible symptoms seriously can significantly lengthen and improve the quality of your life. Whether you think you may have been exposed or not, the best chance for avoiding cancer and other diseases and living a long time is to pursue a healthy lifestyle.
Please feel free to contact us with any other questions you might have. We would be delighted to help you learn more.
Contact an Asbestos Attorney Today
If you or someone you love has been wrongfully exposed to asbestos, contact Mesothelioma Treatment Centers immediately to speak with an asbestos cancer lawyer who will help guide you through treatment options in this difficult time and will fight to protect your legal rights.
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