Asbestos is a group of six different minerals that naturally occur in the environment. Due to their heat-resistant nature, asbestos has been widely used for industrial purposes. More specifically, asbestos was often used in building materials and for insulation purposes. As it ages, asbestos can become loose and crumbly. Hence, it can easily get dispersed into the air and inhaled by humans. The risk of this increases around old pipe fittings, ceilings and walls. While asbestos exposure normally occurs via inhalation, it can also be swallowed.
When this happens, it can be extremely harmful for the body, and especially for the lungs. This is because asbestos fibers are microscopic enough to bypass the lung’s defense mechanisms, and can enter and stay in lung tissue forever. This increases the risk for lung cancer, and sometimes even cancers of the throat, esophagus and gastrointestinal system. Apart from cancer, asbestos can also scar lung tissue and impede the lung’s ability to get oxygen into the bloodstream. This can then lead to further complications. Let’s look at some of the common diseases associated with asbestos exposure.
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects the lining of the lungs and abdomen. So far, asbestos is the only known cause of this cancer. When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they penetrate the lung walls and cause cancer in the lining of the lung, known as pleura. The asbestos fibers can also cause cancer in the abdomen lining if swallowed. Mesothelioma is an extremely aggressive form of cancer that has no cure, and usually causes death within 6 to 18 months after diagnosis.
Another disease that can be caused by asbestos exposure is Asbestosis, which is the scarring and thickening of lung tissue due to exposure to asbestos dust. This is also known as Fibrosis. The scars caused by the asbestos dust will continue to grow and hinder the transfer of oxygen to the lung, resulting in breathing difficulties. This disease typically manifests 10 to 20 years following exposure to asbestos, and is exacerbated by smoking. Asbestosis can have a dire impact on one’s health, causing problems like reduction in lung volume, shortness of breath, lung infections and massive stress on the heart muscle. It eventually causes heart failure resulting in death. Asbestosis is a progressive disease, which means it cannot be reversed.
Lung cancer is a very common disease affecting people who have had high levels of exposure to asbestos. In fact, close to 50% of people dying from asbestosis have been found to have lung cancer at post mortem. Lung cancer tends to develop in people who have had prolonged asbestos exposure because the asbestos fibers are capable of entering the lungs and altering the cells. While lung cancer can be removed surgically, this has to be done early to avoid spreading via blood and lymph, which eventually results in early death. Since smoking in itself is a major risk factor for lung disease, it greatly increases the risk of lung cancer in people with asbestos exposure. Lung cancer from asbestos exposure may take anywhere from 20 to 25 years to develop, and almost always results in death.