Despite the fact that asbestos has been prohibited from use in numerous items, it will remain a general health concern well into the 21st century. The naturally occurring mineral has durable thin threads which were popularly used in various commercial and industrial fields, but possess potential health risk upon exposure.
Chemically the asbestos minerals are silicate compounds; they contain atoms of silicon and oxygen in their molecule structure. Out of six different forms of asbestos, chrysotile asbestos was widely used commercially.
Asbestos has been mined and commercially used in some parts of North America since the late 1800s. During World War II its uses were increased exponentially since then it gained its popularity in manufacturer and construction industries.
Apart from using in roofing, fireproofing, strengthen cement and plastic it was also used in the shipbuilding industry to insulate boilers, steam pipes and hot water pipes. The automotive industry uses asbestos to build clutch pads and brake shoes. Asbestos was quite popular in household constructing items like paint, coating, adhesives, ceiling and floor tiles, wall side covering etc. Some vermiculite-contain garden products also used asbestos.
Intact asbestos sources in the home do not release harmful fibres thereby they should be undisturbed. Relatively older and damaged materials should be repaired and removed after receiving professional advice. Breathing in asbestos fibres is harmful to human health due to its carcinogenic properties.
Long term exposure to the asbestos-filled environment is associated with diseases like asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer and pleural disease. Asbestosis is one of the risk factors for malignant mesothelioma, a form of cancer that affects the tissue lining of the lung or pleura. The time between asbestos exposure to cancer development can be from 10 to 25 years. It depends greatly on the condition of the concerned person. Newborn babies and older persons affect faster rather than adults due to the weak immunity system.
In the late 1970s, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of the U.S prohibited the use of asbestos in wallboard patching since the asbestos fibres in these products could be liberated into the environment during use. The electric hair dryer manufacturers voluntarily stopped using asbestos in their products after the 1980s.
In 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S banned the uses of asbestos. The EPA also instructs the schools to inspect their buildings for the presence of damaged asbestos. They have been instructed to eliminate and reduce asbestos exposure within the vicinity of the building.
Between May to August 2000, the EPA conducted a progression of tests to assess the risk for consumers of adverse health condition due to the exposure of harmful asbestos-contaminated vermiculite. Though the report concluded that some vermiculite possesses a nominal health risk. The EPA regulations on asbestos use have declined the use of asbestos dramatically from 803,000 metric tons to 360 metric tons from 1973 to 2015.
Who affected the most due to asbestos exposure?
Anyone who is exposed to asbestos for a considerable amount of time is at risk. People who are exposed to asbestos regularly have higher chances to become affected. From 1940s millions of workers have been exposed to asbestos, workers of asbestos mining and manufacturing are affected most than the other sectors. Apart from those asbestos removal workers, drywall removal workers, fire-fighters, automobile workers may also be exposed to asbestos fibre. According to reports, there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.
Workers or individuals involved in the rescue, repair and cleaning of the affected site possess a higher chance to develop the asbestos-related disease. Occupants lives in the close proximity of the WTC towers are also one of those affected individuals.
Usually, those who developed asbestos disease show no signs of illness for a long period of time after exposure. Some evidence suggests the family members of the workers those are heavily exposed to asbestos face an increased chance of developing mesothelioma. The members are affected due to the result of exposure to asbestos fibres brought into the home through shoes, clothes, skin and hair of the workers. Some companies restrict their workers to take a shower and change clothes before leaving the company in order to minimize health risk.
Reports suggest some cases of mesothelioma have also been seen in some individuals without occupational asbestos exposure. Breathing in the asbestos-filled environment may be responsible for mesothelioma in them.
Several factors are responsible to determine the effects of asbestos exposure in individuals. The source of exposure, dose, duration, shape and type of asbestos fibre are some of the determining factors. Besides, individual risk factors like smoking, pre-existing lung disease, the genetic mutation will enhance the risk due to asbestos exposure. Different forms of asbestos have a different health risk.
Does smoking enhance the risk of asbestos exposure?
A study from different health department shows that the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure is particularly hazardous. Smokers who were exposed to asbestos have a higher chance of developing lung cancer than non-smokers. Evidence also showed workers those quit smoking will reduce the risk of developing lung cancer among asbestos-exposed workers.
What is asbestosis?
Asbestosis is a long term lung disease which forms a scar-like tissue in the lungs. The elasticity of the lungs decreased due to this fibrosis which makes breathing more difficult.
Individuals, when diagnosed with asbestosis, need to go for a chest x-ray which will show irregular opacities i.e spots in x-ray films. The seriousness of the condition can be determined by lung function test. Individuals who developed asbestosis suffer shortness of breath, reduced lung function, finger clubbing, bluish colouration, chest pain etc. Asbestosis requires several years to develop. The time period varies greatly from person to person. The progression often slows down with little changes for over five to ten years. For some individual, it may be quicker.
What is mesothelioma?
Mesotheliomas are comparatively infrequent in the general population but often seen in asbestos workers. Under such circumstances, fatal cancer arises from the mesothelial cells of the lining of the lung (pleural), abdominal
(peritoneal) and heart (pericardial) cavities.
The latency for mesothelioma is generally 30 to 40 years. Lower levels of asbestos exposure may take more time to appear.
Patients diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma generally experience shoulder and chest pain along with dry cough.
Other health effects from Asbestos exposure
Exposure to the asbestos-filled environment may result in a few types of non-cancerous abnormalities in individuals. Most of them affect the lining of the chest cavity. These are:
The development of pleural plaques normally takes 20 to 30 years to appear after exposure.
Effects on the immune system
Several reports from studies indicate that the function of the immunity system is reduced due to asbestosis. Asbestos exposure can be a causal factor in the development of retroperitoneal fibrosis. This is a rare condition under which the development of a fibrous mass is seen behind the membrane lining of the abdominal cavity. A number of case reports concluded that asbestos exposure may be an alarming risk factor for retroperitoneal fibrosis.
How can the asbestos disease be detected?
Workers or individuals who have been exposed to the asbestos-filled environment or otherwise came in contact with asbestos fibres should inform their doctor about their exposure history. If the individual observes any symptoms he/she should clarify that too. The symptoms of asbestos exposure may not become visible for a decade after the exposure.
It is suggested to check with a doctor if the individual has developed any of the following symptoms:
A thorough physical examination followed by a blood test and chest x-ray may be recommended. The chest x-ray is the most common way prescribed by the doctors to detect asbestos fibres in an individual. It can also help identify early lung disease resulting from asbestos exposure.
A fair proportion of inhaled asbestos fibres may be retained in the lungs after a long period of inhalation. Microscopic asbestos fibres can be removed from lung tissue through a lung biopsy. Asbestos fibres can also be detected in faces, mucus and urine though these tests are not considered as a reliable as a chest x-ray.
What occupations could lead to asbestos disease?
According to the Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of the U.S and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) asbestos disease more precisely asbestos exposure is a concern of the occupational individuals.
How the workers can protect themselves from asbestos exposure?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA have established regulations of asbestos exposure for the individuals associated with construction work, shipyards, manufacturing and general industry. The employers of these industries must follow the regulations in order to work there.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration or MSHA enforced regulations for the individuals work in the asbestos mining industry. The workers must use all the safety equipment provided by their employers. They also need to follow the recommended workplace practices and safety procedures in order to minimize health risk.
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Let’s take a look at the case studies related to asbestos disease.
A 10-year-old boy was suffering from fever and shortness of breath brought to the doctor. Exertional dyspnea also presents in that boy from a month before associated with intermittent dry cough. He was accompanied by his mother who told the doctor that her 65-year-old cousin has recently been diagnosed with mesothelioma and is dying. The person used to be a longshoreman and have retired from his position about 3 years ago. After that, he was associated with a local school and involved in general clean-up and boiler room maintenance.
The mother is afraid that her son's dyspnea and cough are somewhat related to asbestos exposure at school. She also added recent asbestos removal in the school has increased her concern.
Upon physical examination, no acute distress was found in the patient. Though the symptoms were somewhat related to the asbestos disease the patient was not diagnosed with mesothelioma. The doctor suggested a regular check-up to a year to be finally sure about his health.
Graham Ansell was a 48-year-old patient suffered from mesothelioma and died in 2007. He was an apprentice carpenter when he was 16, some of his work involved cutting asbestos-containing boards called asbestolux and working in roofs were chimneys demolished sometimes. After that Graham shifted to another company which was involved with the refurbishment of an established bank in London. There Graham’s responsibility was to drill the ceilings and install fireproof doors. It is suspected that Graham was exposed to asbestos during these years.
During the treatment, his family told within those years of working he had never be informed about exposing to asbestos. He was never aware of the asbestos risks that are why he never wore protective clothing or took safety precaution because he was not aware of the possible risks.
Graham’s wife Mandy Ansell, told the Health and Safety Executive that their family were traumatized when they come to know about his illness. Graham went to the doctor in April 2006 with symptoms of mild cough and breathlessness. In July 2006 he was diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Doctors informed the family he only had the 10 per cent use of the affected lung, additionally several litres of fluid already drained before starting the first course of chemotherapy.
In December 2006 doctors tried to remove the affected lung through an operation, but then it was discovered that cancer had already spread to the chest wall so the surgery could not take place.
He decided to go through the surgery but after that, it was too late for the second chemotherapy as cancer had already taken hold of the lung. In April 2007 he died before a few days of his 49th birthday.
His family has received compensation though nothing can replace his gap in his family.
What facilities companies should provide to its workers?
Companies dealing with or manufacturing asbestos products must offer medical coverage to their workers. The regular physical check-up should be offered by the company. Workers with the occupational asbestos disease may qualify for financial help which should include medical payment under the workers’ compensation law. Proper asbestos awareness should be provided by the company. The workers must be well informed about their claims of medical expenses and other expenditure.
Asbestos Exposure Pathways - Primarily asbestos exposure occurs through inhalation of the fibrous dust. The insulating materials prior to 1980s usually contain asbestos.
Commercial uses of asbestos
It has been used over 2000 products because of its higher tensile strength and resistance to acid and temperature. It has a higher degree of flexibility; additionally, it does not evaporate, dissolve or undergo chemical changes which make it non-biodegradable. The uses of asbestos have included the following-
The construction materials after 1975 may no longer contain asbestos. Fine particles of asbestos results from the erosion of the natural land sources or discarded mines may contaminate drinking water supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency of the U.S proposed maximum contaminant level for asbestos in drinking water is 7 million fibres per litre. The particles were larger than 10 microns in length.
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