Asbestos is a natural mineral with versatile uses due to its heat resistance, tensile strength, and insulating and fireproof properties. In the past, it was woven into fabric to be mixed with cement and widely used in numerous building products before being considered toxic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are six different types of asbestos minerals, including chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, and actinolite. Despite the different chemical compositions of the asbestos types, all commercial forms of asbestos are carcinogenic.
Evidence that asbestos could be toxic started to become discovered during the 1920s, and in the mid-20th century, investigators were able to establish the correlation between asbestos and severe respiratory diseases. Nowadays, asbestos is banned in over 50 countries and its use is limited in others such as the United States. However, since it was used in commercial and industrial construction for nearly 100 years, millions of workers had already been exposed to asbestos and 10,000 people continue to be exposed every year in the US alone.
Occupational, Environmental and Secondhand Exposure to Asbestos
Exposure to asbestos can occur in different settings, but some occupations, jobs, and locations are more exposed to it. Numerous building from before 1980 contain asbestos, and occupational exposure is the most common type. Workers from almost every trades can be exposed to asbestos, including drywall tapers, electricians, firefighters, auto mechanics, shipyards, power plants, metal works, schools, chemical plants, oil refineries and many others. The US Armed Forces also used a great amount of asbestos insulating battleships, vehicles, aircraft carriers, cruisers, auxiliary vessles, submarines, destroyers, and frigates from the early 1900s until the 1970s, which is why thousands of veterans suffer from related diseases.
Environmental exposure is also a possibility since it is naturally found on mines and can be released into the air as a result of mining or a natural disaster. California is the location in the country where there are largest natural deposits of asbestos, and people living nearby these kind of deposits are in greatest risk. In addition, secondhand exposure is the least common but it is also risky. People can suffer asbestos-related diseases without working or living near it. This happens because people are indirectly exposed to asbestos. Secondhand exposure can occur when people is in contact with clothing or furniture used by people directly exposed, as well as through hugging or other kind of physical contact.
Health Risks Associated with Asbestos Exposure
If asbestos remains undisturbed, it rarely poses any risk to health. However, when it is damaged or disturbed, asbestos fibers are released into the air. This is why only qualified professionals are authorized to remove asbestos and there are guidelines to be followed. Asbestos fibers can be inhaled or swollen and the majority of conditions occur due heavy and repeated exposure, but no level of exposure to asbestos is considered safe. Since the body is unable to properly expel the fibers, they accumulate are likely to accumulate in the lungs or other organs, causing scarring and inflammation in the cells.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it takes 20 to 50 years for someone who was exposed to asbestos to experience the symptoms of a related disease. These include mesothelioma, asbestosis, interstitial lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, ovarian cancer, laryngeal cancer and diseases. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people in the USA are diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer related to asbestos exposure, every year, while the same amount die annually due to asbestos-related lung cancer and about 200,000 people are currently living in the country with asbestosis.