Asbestos Healh Risks
Asbestos is found in many buildings and products, and is generally safe especially if not disturbed. But if you inhale asbestos particles, it can lead to serious health complications. In this article, we tell you about the health problems related to inhaling asbestos particles.
How can asbestos affect my health?
Inhaling asbestos fibre can lead to asbestosis, mesothelioma and even lung cancer. Your chances of being affected by these diseases increase with the quantity of fibres you inhale. If you are a smoker, you are far more likely to contract lung cancer. If you are exposed to high asbestos levels for a long time, you will be a victim of health problems that come from inhaling asbestos. The symptoms of the above diseases don’t usually appear for 20-30 years after being exposed to asbestos for the first time.
How can you become exposed?
There are mainly two ways through which you can become exposed to asbestos and these are:
Majority of exposures arise from breathing in asbestos fibres in the air. This can take place during the manufacture of asbestos-containing products, the mining and processing of asbestos and when installing asbestos insulation. Exposure to asbestos also occurs when renovating or demolishing older buildings, or when older materials containing asbestos starts breaking down. During asbestos exposure, asbestos fibres tend to form a dust composed of tiny particles capable of floating in the air.
Swallowing of asbestos can occur when you consume contaminated liquids or food (for example water flowing through cement pipes made from asbestos). Another way through which asbestos swallowing might occur is when you cough up asbestos you inhaled and swallow your saliva.
A lot of people are exposed to low levels of naturally occurring asbestos found in outdoor air due to erosion of rocks that contain asbestos. The chances of this kind of exposure are higher in places where rocks contain higher asbestos content.
Asbestosis refers to a chronic and progressive lung cancer that occurs after inhaling asbestos fibres for long periods of time. Symptoms usually take long to develop (5-20 years). The inhaled asbestos fibres lead to scarring of the lungs, something known medically as fibrosis. The fibrosis or the scar tissue is inflexible and hard. This makes your lung to stiffen and not work properly.
Symptoms of asbestosis include:
- Persistent coughing
- Tightness in the chest
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty swallowing
- Blood in the sputum
Getting sufficient oxygen from each breath requires much greater effort. Asbestosis usually becomes worse over time. it can cause respiratory failure and even death.
Asbestosis is more likely to attack a person who smokes compared to a non-smoker. If you were previously exposed to asbestos, it’s important to quit smoking to lower your risk of contracting asbestosis. Quitting smoking also helps reduce your chances of contracting lung cancer.
Asbestosis doesn’t have a cure. The following are the treatment options:
- Oxygen therapy for relieving shortness of breath
- Respiration physiotherapy aimed at removing secretions from the lungs
- Use of medications to relieve pain and thin secretions
Overall, asbestosis patients that are diagnosed with early stage asbestosis have better prognosis and even have longer survival rates. Up to 70% of patients found to have stage I asbestosis can have a 5-year survival. This number drops drastically to 26% for those suffering from stage III asbestosis.
Mesothelioma refers to a rare but aggressive type of asbestos cancer whose only cause is being exposed to asbestos. It can take up to 50 years for mesothelioma to be diagnosed as the condition has quite a long latency period. In other words, the disease can remain silent in your body for tens of years, finally appearing in the form of symptoms such as shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, fatigue and difficulty breathing among other symptoms.
Because mesothelioma can only be caused by asbestos exposure, it is important that you inform your doctor of your past exposure if you exhibit these symptoms. Your doctor will most likely order MRIs, CT scans or x-rays to determine if a tumor is present.
There are a number of treatment options for mesothelioma and these include the following:
Surgery may be used to remove part of or all of the tumors especially for patients who have early-stage diagnosis of mesothelioma.
Chemotherapy medications work by attacking fast-growing cells, like cancer cells. Normally used together with surgery, chemotherapy kills any remaining cells of mesothelioma that may not have been removed physically by the surgeon.
By using targeted radiation, it is possible to shrink mesothelioma tumors, which makes them easier to remove through surgery. Depending on the location of the tumor, the radiation may be delivered by using internal or external source.
Roughly 55% of mesothelioma patients can live longer than six months, while approximately 35% live longer than a year. Only 9% of patients diagnosed with this condition can live longer than 5 years.
3. Lung cancer
Asbestos lung cancer refers to a rare type of cancer which is caused by exposure to asbestos and other factors such as smoking. Medical researchers first discovered a relationship between lung cancer and asbestos exposure in 1935. It was confirmed 7 years later that asbestos exposure indeed causes lung cancer.
Like mesothelioma, lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure is typically diagnosed has a long latency period and is diagnosed at a late stage. Symptoms take a long time before showing.
Surgery can be used to remove malignant tissues formed by exposure to asbestos. If you undergo surgery, your lymph nodes from the chest may also be removed by your surgeon to see if they have any signs of cancer.
Lung cancer surgery, like any surgery, carries some risks which include infection and bleeding. Patients who undergo lung surgery operations normally feel a shortness of breath after the surgery. Where a portion of your lung tissue gets removed, it will expand in time to enable you breathe more easily.
Radiation therapy is a kind of treatment that uses high-powered energy beams from x-ray to kill cancer cells. The therapy can be directed at lung cancer from outside the body or it could be put inside needles.
Targeted drug therapy
This is a newer cancer treatment that works by targeting particular abnormalities in cancerous cells. These drugs are normally used together with chemotherapy drugs. Targeted therapy options used to treat lung cancer include:
- Bevacizumab (Avastin)
- Afatinib (Gilotrif)
- Nivolumab (Opdivo)
- Crizotinib (Xalkori)
If the disease is discovered when it’s still localized within the lungs, survival rate for 5 years is 55%. However, just 16% of lung cancer cases tend to be diagnosed in early stages. If the tumors are distant (meaning that they have spread to other organs) the 5-year survival rate drops to just 4 percent.
4. Pleural Thickening
Also known as DPT (diffuse pleural thickening), pleural thickening is a kind of lung disease where extensive scarring thickens the pleura. The pleura is the thin membrane covering the lungs.
The scar tissue can encase lung and even close off space between the pleura and the lungs as the scar tissue becomes larger in size. Pleural thickening is among the most commonly diagnosed asbestos exposure signs and may lead to chest pain as well as significant decline in the breathing function.
While the cause and severity of the disease can vary, prolonged exposure to asbestos is the main culprit.
Although the damage is irreversible, it does have some treatment options. In most cases, doctors suggest therapies for treating the symptoms of the disease. They may prescribe pain medications like steroids, bronchodilators and antibiotics which make breathing easier.
Pleural thickening on its own is not a deadly disease. However, it’s a bad sign since it is usually a forerunner to mesothelioma. If you have pleural thickening but you still haven’t been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you could have some time to leave, may be years to decades based on your condition. But if you are also diagnosed with mesothelioma, the prognosis is usually grimmer.
How to prevent asbestos exposure
For you to avoid instances where you are exposed to asbestos, you must know where the asbestos is most likely to be found. If you are unsure whether a building contains asbestos, assume that it has until verified otherwise. Remember that just by looking, you cannot know whether your floor tiles have asbestos or not.
Here are some tips to prevent asbestos exposure.
- Consult asbestos professionals for testing or even removal information
- Never damage or remove asbestos materials•
- Avoid dusting, sweeping or vacuuming debris you suspect could contain asbestos
- Do not sand or attempt to level asbestos flooring or even its backing. If possible, install new floor covering over your old one when it needs replacing.
Being exposed to asbestos is dangerous to your health. It exposes you to a number of deadly diseases like mesothelioma and lung cancer. Some of these diseases have no cure and once you contract them, you may as well start counting your days. As much as possible avoid exposure to asbestos. If you suspect that something contains asbestos, treat it as such until such a point that it is verified.