Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Health Care and Asbestos

Asbestos related illnesses have had an impact on Americans. And, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), asbestos is the name given to a group of minerals that occur naturally in the environment as bundles of fibers that can be separated into thin, durable threads. These fibers are resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals and do not conduct electricity. For these reasons, asbestos has been used widely in many industries. Chemically, asbestos minerals are silicate compounds, meaning they contain atoms of silicon and oxygen in their molecular structure.

According to, although statistics have shown a growing number of individuals who have never worked with asbestos are suffering with asbestos-related illness, most documented cases of such diseases are caused by occupational exposure. This is due to the likeliness of repeated exposure, which occurs through standard operations in a variety of industries and jobsites. Naturally, jobsites such as asbestos mines, processing plants, and manufacturing plants where asbestos products were made, have a legacy of high occupational exposure. However, there are many other jobsites such as shipyards, auto-manufacturing plants, metalworks, oil refineries, power plants, and chemical plants that also share a long history of asbestos exposure as well. Those who worked at these jobsites during the 1900's were probably exposed to a number of asbestos-containing products and materials and are now at risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.

People may be exposed to asbestos in their workplace, their communities, or their homes according to NCI. If products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny asbestos fibers are released into the air. When asbestos fibers are breathed in, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long time. Over time, these fibers can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems. Although it is clear that the health risks from asbestos exposure increase with heavier exposure and longer exposure time, investigators have found asbestos-related diseases in individuals with only brief exposures. Generally, those who develop asbestos-related diseases show no signs of illness for a long time after their first exposure. It can take from 10 to 40 years or more for symptoms of an asbestos-related condition to appear.

Several factors, according to NCI, can help to determine how asbestos exposure affects an individual, including:
--Dose (how much asbestos an individual was exposed to).
--Duration (how long an individual was exposed).
--Size, shape, and chemical makeup of the asbestos fibers.
--Source of the exposure.
--Individual risk factors, such as smoking and pre-existing lung disease.
Although all forms of asbestos are considered hazardous, different types of asbestos fibers may be associated with different health risks. For example, the results of several studies suggest that amphibole forms of asbestos may be more harmful than chrysotile, particularly for mesothelioma risk, because they tend to stay in the lungs for a longer period of time.

According to NCI, individuals who have been exposed (or suspect they have been exposed) to asbestos fibers on the job, through the environment, or at home via a family contact should inform their doctor about their exposure history and whether or not they experience any symptoms. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not become apparent for many decades after the exposure. It is particularly important to check with a doctor if any of the following symptoms develop:
--Shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness.
--A persistent cough that gets worse over time.
--Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs.
--Pain or tightening in the chest.
--Difficulty swallowing.
--Swelling of the neck or face.
--Loss of appetite.
--Weight loss.
--Fatigue or anemia.
A thorough physical examination, including a chest x-ray and lung function tests, may be recommended. The chest x-ray is currently the most common tool used to detect asbestos-related diseases. However, it is important to note that chest x-rays cannot detect asbestos fibers in the lungs, but they can help identify any early signs of lung disease resulting from asbestos exposure. More info can be found at .

According to, certain occupations also carry an elevated risk of asbestos exposure. Because asbestos was used in a wide variety of both industrial and domestic products, many occupations came in contact with the toxic substance. For example, since asbestos was integrated into so many plumbing and electrical materials, both plumbers and electricians have an increased risk of contracting asbestos-related disease. Firefighters also fall under this category because exposure can occur while working around older asbestos-contaminated homes. Many other occupations share a history of asbestos exposure as well, such as construction and railroad workers, auto mechanics, and machinists. Asbestos products were widely used by every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, mainly for insulation purposes in buildings, aircraft, and vehicles. But no other division of the Armed Forces utilized asbestos quite like the Navy, which found hundreds of uses for asbestos materials in its vessels and shipyards from the 1930s through the mid-1970s. The need to supply World War II efforts caused a spike in demand, which led to increased production among the nation's shipyards. Over the decades, thousands of shipyard workers and Navy veterans who were stationed aboard the contaminated vessels were heavily exposed to asbestos, often in small places with little to no ventilation. For these reasons, veterans and shipyard workers have an elevated risk of developing an asbestos-related disease.

While most accounts of asbestos exposure occur in an occupational setting, accidental exposure is another way people have come in contact with this caustic substance, according to For example, the World Trade Center attacks that took place on September 11, 2001 set an estimated 2,000 tons of asbestos into the air in the form of a fine dust. According to a 2006 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, an alarming 62 percent of those caught in the dust cloud are coping with respiratory problems. Another incidence of accidental exposure was caused by the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history-Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane damaged thousands of older asbestos-contaminated homes, many of which remain standing today. Nearly three years after the storm hit, the area is still struggling to restore infrastructure and prevent asbestos exposure from the remaining asbestos-laden structures.

Research has shown a clear link between exposure to asbestos and respiratory cancers (cancer of the lungs and mesothelioma) in humans, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR). Significant exposure to any type of asbestos will increase the risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma and nonmalignant lung and pleural disorders, including asbestosis, pleural plaques, pleural thickening, and pleural effusions. However, the link between exposure to asbestos and other types of cancers is less clear. Some epidemiologic studies suggest an association between gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers and asbestos exposure. However, very few studies suggest an elevated risk for cancers of the kidney, brain, larynx, and bladder and asbestos exposure.

According to the ASTDR, if you think you might have been exposed to asbestos:
1.) Tell your doctor. Your doctor may take an exposure history and recommend a thorough physical exam, including a chest x-ray and lung function tests. Your doctor may need a specialist who is experienced in reading x-rays for asbestos-related illness to help interpret the results. Other tests may be necessary.
2.) Quit smoking. If you are a smoker, quit smoking. Smoking combined with asbestos exposure greatly increases the risk of getting lung cancer.
3.) Get regular influenza (flu) and pneumonia shots. Regular inoculations help reduce the chance of lung infections.

Being exposed to asbestos, according to the ASTDR, does not mean that you will develop health problems! Many things need to be considered when evaluating whether you are at risk for health problems from asbestos exposure. A doctor can help you find out if you have health problems from asbestos exposure. More info about dealing with asbestos related issues can be found at .

Until next time. Let me know what you think.


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