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The dangers of asbestos and its detrimental health effects have long been documented. Various degrees of exposure to friable asbestos fibres have attendant consequences.
Therefore, you must know the risks and long-term consequences of asbestos exposure. This way, you can adequately manage any asbestos in your home or workplace.
This article considers what asbestos is and the attendant risk of exposure. You can also learn about asbestos-related diseases, asbestos exposure and cancer risk, and how to test for asbestos exposure.
What is Asbestos?
"Asbestos" refers to a naturally occurring group of asbestos minerals. These minerals characteristically occur as fibres. Asbestos fibres that are released into the air are directly responsible for many harmful health effects caused by asbestos.
Sources of Asbestos Exposure
As much as 30% of Australian homes are likely to contain asbestos. This is because asbestos was common as building materials for houses until 1990. Therefore, serious measures must be taken to prevent asbestos exposure in homes and workplaces.
Asbestos in the home
If your home was built before 1990, it may have asbestos. Even though the use, sale, and manufacture of asbestos products has been essentially banned. Asbestos-containing products still exist, and you need to be wary of them. A positive measure you can take is to use now available safe substitutes for products containing asbestos.
Common examples of asbestos products include the following:
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Asbestos cement sheeting
- Asbestos insulation
- Asbestos ceiling
Asbestos in the workplace
Low levels of asbestos exposure do not tend to cause asbestos diseases. However, continued exposure to large amounts of asbestos fibres leads to serious health effects. This is why the heavy use of asbestos in manufacturing and construction industries in the past is still a problem today.
Places where asbestos exposure occurred include communities around asbestos mines or mills, such as Wittenoom in Western Australia. You need to comply with provisions as stated in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 if you have any case of occupational asbestos exposure.
You need to invite asbestos removal professionals if you discover the presence of asbestos in your home or workplace. They are well-trained and licensed for safe asbestos removal or encapsulation.
Long-Term Dangers of Exposures to Asbestos
The reality about asbestos safety and asbestos exposure is that no amount of asbestos is "safe". If your work causes you to be at risk of asbestos exposure for a long time, you may develop asbestos health conditions such as lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. For this reason, you need to properly understand the sources of asbestos exposure, degrees of exposure to asbestos, and how asbestos affects people.
Health risks of exposure to asbestos
It is not automatically dangerous for you to be near asbestos products. Harmful asbestos exposure only occurs when inhaling and breathing in asbestos dust particles. Non-friable, tightly bound, and undisturbed asbestos materials do not pose airborne threats.
When you disturb friable asbestos, asbestos fibres can be released into the air, ultimately leading to asbestos exposure. There is a tendency to develop asbestos-related diseases when you inhale the fibres.
Continued or large amounts of asbestos exposure cause the fibres to accumulate in lung tissues and membranes and cause harmful health effects. They can even invade the pleura and lining of the lungs and cause respiratory problems such as pleural effusion.
There is a direct link between being exposed to asbestos in the long term and severe health effects like lung cancer and asbestosis.
Examples of asbestos-related diseases include the following:
- Lung cancer
- Pleural plaques or pleural thickening
Asbestosis is one of the long-term health effects of asbestos exposure. It is a chronic lung disease that involves the scarring of lung tissues. Symptoms like shortness of breath and persistent dry cough characterise it.
Another asbestos-related disease is mesothelioma, and it can cause you to need the services of a top mesothelioma doctor. Mesothelioma is an asbestos disease that occurs in asbestos workers and those who have suffered heavy asbestos exposure. Pleural mesothelioma occurs around the lungs.
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare cancer that results from the mesothelial cells that line the lung, abdominal, and heart cavities. Associated symptoms include shoulder pain, chest pain, and persistent dry cough.
Asbestos exposure and cancer risk
Asbestos workers are more likely to develop severe illnesses like lung cancer. Examples of other cancers caused by breathing in asbestos fibres include cancers of the digestive system and colon cancer. Some asbestos workers even suffer from rare cancers.
Asbestos fibres and risk of developing lung cancer
Asbestos fibres can be both a primary and secondary factor that increases the risk of developing lung cancer. Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, increasing lung cancer and mesothelioma risk. Another factor that is linked to lung cancer is smoking after already being exposed to asbestos.
Ultimately, the risk of lung cancer is dependent on several factors. This includes the duration of exposure and amounts of asbestos. An effect of asbestos is the increase in the growth of cancerous tumours that, in turn, impair lung function and capacity.
As such, symptoms of lung cancer include difficulty in breathing, chest pain, and anaemia. Patients may experience a latency period of up to 15 to 20 years after first exposure before symptoms of lung cancer appear. You can use lung function tests such as spirometry to rule out lung diseases.
What is the Likelihood of Asbestos Exposure?
Asbestos-related diseases may generally take a long time to develop. Some symptoms may take up to 20 years to come up. A few factors can increase the risks of asbestos exposure and lead to family health concerns. These factors include the following:
- Type of asbestos: Friable asbestos poses a greater risk of harmful health effects.
- Amount of asbestos: Large amounts of asbestos exposure lead to more severe health effects.
- Duration of asbestos exposure: Long-term environmental exposures lead to more severe health effects.
- Genetics: Genetic dispositions and mutations can affect the likelihood of developing asbestos-related diseases after being heavily exposed to asbestos.
- Medical history: People with a smoking history have increased chances of developing lung cancer after asbestos exposure.
How Dangerous are Asbestos Products?
No "safe" amounts of asbestos exist, and consumer products with more than 1 percent of asbestos minerals are regarded as asbestos-containing. However, continued asbestos and asbestos fibres exposure can lead to asbestos diseases. For instance, lung cancer and asbestosis are dose-related asbestos diseases.
On the other hand, small amounts of asbestos can cause mesothelioma. The relatives of asbestos workers have suffered from second-hand exposure and subsequent mesothelioma due to the dust in workers' clothes.
How to Check for Materials that Contain Asbestos
It is not so easy to only confirm the presence of asbestos by appearance. It is best to get a licensed asbestos removalist to take a sample and test it at a National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) accredited lab.
How to test for asbestos exposure
A common way to test whether you have been exposed to asbestos is through chest X-rays. Although chest X-rays cannot detect the actual presence of asbestos fibres, they can help you identify early signs of lung-related diseases caused by asbestos.
You can also use tests such as computer-aided tomography (CAT) scans and lung scanning to detect lung problems.
Upon confirming the presence of asbestos, you should take steps to make a record at the National Asbestos Exposure Register. Health organisations can also provide resources such as mesothelioma guides and health support.
Guides and Information Sources on Asbestos
You can learn more about asbestos, health risks of asbestos, and asbestos dangers from the following:
- Government websites with details on clearing and removing asbestos-containing materials.
- Environmental Health Criteria Report on Chrysotile Asbestos from the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS).
- Australia's National Asbestos Profile (NAP)
- Cancer Council of Australia
Get Help from Asbestos Removalists
The long-term consequences of asbestos exposure can indeed be dire. You should be more asbestos aware and confirm you are not at risk of exposure. Should you find or suspect the presence of asbestos in your home or workplace, do not attempt to remove it yourself. Quickly call on a licensed professional asbestos removalist for proper identification, testing, and safe removal.