Asbestos Exposure and Your Health

Overview

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of six natural mineral fibers. These fibers are known for their strength and fire- and chemical-resistant properties. Because of these qualities, the manufacturing and building industries have used asbestos to:

  • Strengthen cement and plastics.
  • Provide insulation.
  • Fireproof buildings, textiles and military vehicles.
  • Absorb sound.

Asbestos fibers may be white, blue, brown, gray or green. The white fibers, called chrysotile, are the most commonly used in the United States.

What products contain asbestos?

Asbestos has been mined and used in North America since the late 1800s. During World War II, manufacturers starting using it more. Asbestos is in thousands of products, including building products such as:

  • Asbestos and cement shingles, siding and roofing.
  • Casings for electrical wires.
  • Millboard.
  • Patching and joint compound.
  • Pipe, duct and furnace insulation.
  • Floor tile and adhesives.
  • Soundproofing material.

Many household products and substances also contain asbestos, including:

  • Artificial ashes and embers used in gas-fired fireplaces.
  • Automobile brake pads and linings, clutch facings and gaskets.
  • Fireproof gloves, stovetop pads, table pads and fire-resistant fabrics (including blankets and curtains).
  • Some plastics, paints, coatings and adhesives.
  • Vermiculite-containing attic insulation and consumer garden products.

How does asbestos affect my health?

Asbestos fibers are not harmful unless they are released into the air. When they are released, the fibers break down into tiny particles. The particles become airborne, and we inhale them. Then they collect in the lungs, causing scarring and inflammation. Several U.S. health organizations have classified asbestos as a carcinogen, a cancer-causing substance.

Exposure to asbestos can increase the risk of developing:

Since the late 1970s, the United States has passed regulations limiting asbestos use. These regulations:

  • Ban asbestos use in situations where it could be released into the air (like in gas fireplaces).
  • Require regular inspections to make sure asbestos materials are intact and undamaged.
  • Establish guidelines to ensure asbestos particles aren’t released during use.

Many products — especially buildings built before the regulations — contain asbestos. However, overall there has been a significant decline in the use of asbestos in the United States.

Who is at risk of asbestos exposure?

Everyone has some level of asbestos exposure. There are low levels of asbestos in the air, water and soil. However, these levels are low enough that they do not make people ill.

People who have worked directly with asbestos have the highest risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Occupations that have a high risk of asbestos exposure include:

  • Shipbuilding and naval service.
  • Railway construction.
  • Asbestos mining and milling.
  • Construction and building trades.
  • Manufacture of chemicals, flooring, plastics or rubber.
  • Auto industry (specifically brake repair).
  • Firefighting.
  • Fabric milling.
  • Building demolition.

Those who were involved in rescue, recovery and cleanup at the site of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City are at higher risk for developing asbestos-related diseases.

Not everyone exposed to asbestos develops an illness. In general, the longer your exposure, the higher your risk. But even if you only had brief exposure to asbestos, you still have a risk of developing a disease.

Factors that affect your risk of developing asbestos-related disease:

  • Duration: How long you were exposed to the asbestos.
  • Intensity: How much asbestos you were exposed to.
  • Type of industry: Lower risk if asbestos is bonded into a product (such as walls or tiles); higher risk if asbestos is released into the air, such as during sawing or drilling.
  • Personal risk factors: Smoking or pre-existing lung disease.
  • Genetic mutations: Gene change that makes it more likely you’ll develop a disease.

According to the National Cancer Institute, millions of Americans have had asbestos exposure since the 1940s.

  • Around 3,000 Americans receive a mesothelioma diagnosis every year. About 90% of mesothelioma cases are due to asbestos exposure.
  • Of all the conditions caused by asbestos, asbestos-related lung cancer causes the most deaths, followed by mesothelioma.

Symptoms and Causes

Asbestos-related conditions result from exposure to tiny asbestos fibers that collect in the lungs. The longer you were exposed to asbestos and the more intense the exposure, the higher your chances of developing a related condition. Working with asbestos-containing materials is the main cause. People who laundered clothing containing asbestos fibers or live in areas with high levels of airborne asbestos are also at risk.

You may have no symptoms until years after exposure. People who develop asbestos-related disease may be symptom-free for as long as 10 to 40 years after exposure. If you have any of these symptoms, see your healthcare provider:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Development of a cough or a change in cough patterns.
  • Blood in the fluid (sputum) coughed up from the lungs.
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen.
  • Difficulty in swallowing or prolonged hoarseness.
  • Significant weight loss.
  • Neck or face swelling.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Fatigue.

Diagnosis and Tests

To diagnose asbestos-related disease, your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and asbestos exposure. Your provider will then perform a physical exam, including:

What other tests might I need?

Your provider may recommend further testing to see your lungs in more detail:

  • CT scan.
  • Bronchoscopy, passing a thin tube down your airway and into your lungs to get detailed images.
  • Lung or pleural biopsy, taking a small sample of lung tissue to check for signs of disease.

Management and Treatment

Your treatment for asbestos-related disease depends on how asbestos has affected your lungs. There is no “one size fits all” treatment. For example, if you have a pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs) the fluid may need to be drained. Other treatments include:

· Oxygen therapy, which can help improve shortness of breath, breathing problems and low oxygen levels in your blood.

· Chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, one or all of which may be part of the treatment if you develop lung cancer or mesothelioma.

Prevention

Should I avoid all asbestos products?

Asbestos fibers are only harmful when they are released into the air. Today, asbestos used in building materials and many other products are bonded into the products. This process keeps them from being released into the air. There is little to no risk of harmful health effects from these products. However, take care not to sand, tear or otherwise damage or crumble the material. These actions can release the fibers into the air.

Do I need to remove asbestos materials from my home?

If you have asbestos materials in your home that are in good condition, it’s best to leave them alone. If you touch or disturb the material, you risk releasing the fibers into the air. Have materials inspected from time to time for signs of damage or deterioration. Intact material doesn’t pose a risk.

What if the asbestos material is damaged?

If you notice the material crumbling, a professional should come take a sample of the material and analyze it. If the material is asbestos and has damage, you will need to have it removed or repaired.

The goal of repair is to prevent asbestos fibers from being released into the air. Hire an asbestos professional to do the repair or removal. Don’t try to do it yourself. Improper handling of asbestos can create more of a health risk than leaving the material alone.

Because asbestos-related diseases affect the lungs, smoking increases lung cancer risk in people who have been exposed to asbestos. People who have had asbestos exposure should take extra care not to smoke.

Outlook / Prognosis

Your prognosis and outlook depend on how asbestos affects your lungs. It may take several years for any sign of asbestos-related disease to be detected. Lung or pleural scarring may not affect your overall health — however severe scarring, lung cancer or mesothelioma will. It all depends on the severity of your condition, overall health and other risk factors.

Can damage from asbestos be reversed?

Treatment cannot reverse lung damage from asbestos. Treatment for asbestos-related diseases aims to relieve symptoms, treat complications related to the disease and slow its progress.

Living With

If I was exposed to asbestos through my job, does that increase health risks for my family members?

It is possible to have “secondhand” asbestos exposure, called “paraoccupational exposure.” When a person works with asbestos materials, they can bring home particles on their shoes, clothing, skin and hair. Some evidence shows that family members of people who are heavily exposed to asbestos have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma.

To decrease this risk, most jobs that use asbestos materials make sure that the workers change when they arrive and leave work. Most companies also have showers available for employees to clean particles from hair and skin. Trained employees who wear protective clothing launder the contaminated clothing. These precautions lower the risk of family members developing any diseases. If you are exposed to asbestos at work, talk to your healthcare provider about other precautions you and your family can take.

What should I ask my doctor?

If you work in an industry with asbestos, ask your healthcare provider:

  • How can I reduce my risk for asbestos-related illness?
  • Should I have any regular testing or monitoring?
  • Are there medications or other preventive steps to take?
  • How can I protect my family members from asbestos-related illnesses?
  • If I start to feel symptoms, what steps should I take?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

If you’ve been exposed to asbestos through your job, talk to your healthcare provider. Asbestos can cause several health conditions, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare cancer. You may not have symptoms for decades after exposure. Even if you’re feeling fine, talk to a provider so you can take steps to protect yourself and reduce your health risks. If you do have an asbestos-related condition, your healthcare provider will help you get the treatment you need.

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