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Asbestos: Lethal Environment Hazard

The modern world provides us with many comforts. But it also presents environmental dangers. The danger to your health caused by exposure to asbestos is of grave concern. The term asbestos covers a number of mineral composites.

Since the 1930s, abnormalities in chest X-rays and lung function tests were recognized in people who had very long exposure to asbestos. You may have heard news of health problems connected to asbestos. But do you know if you are among the millions of people who have been exposed to asbestos during your lifetime?

The History of Asbestos

Asbestos was used extensively as an insulation material in building construction for many years until 1975, when it was replaced by other materials such as fiberglass and slag wool.

There are four types of asbestos fiberschrysotile, amosite, anthophyllite and crocidolite - all of which can cause respiratory disease.

Problems may result when large amounts of fine asbestos fibers become trapped in your lungs.

People exposed to asbestos include workers in the mining, milling, manufacturing and installation of asbestos products. Specific trades involved with asbestos included pipe fitting, boiler making, shipbuilding and construction.

In addition to its use as insulation, asbestos was used in fire smothering blankets and safety clothing, in gas masks, as filler for plastic materials, in brakes and clutch linings, and in cement and floor tiles. Asbestos also was sprayed on steel girders of buildings to prevent buckling in a fire.

Today, demolition workers and do-it-yourself home renovators working on older buildings are at risk.

“You don't need to handle the material yourself to be exposed to the fibers. In years past, electricians, painters and those who worked near others installing asbestos insulation were at risk, as were individuals who shook out and washed the clothes of people who worked with the material.

Affects Your Breathing and May Lead to Cancer

Your lungs are the primary targets for asbestos damage. Breathing may become progressively more difficult. The damage may also lead to one of several types of lung cancer.

The first symptom may be only a chronic, dry cough. With time, you may experience shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance and pain in your chest.

These symptoms are not unique to asbestosis, the lung disease that results from asbestos exposure. But a history of exposure, even decades ago, can lead your doctor to the diagnosis.

Pulmonary asbestosis may result when the asbestos fibers accumulate around your bronchioles, the smallest air passageways. Your lungs react to the fibers by covering them, forming small masses of scar tissue. Symptoms appear when the scar tissue causes your lungs to lose their elasticity.

The severity of the disease is directly related to the duration of your exposure and to the amount of fiber inhaled. It usually takes at least 10 years of moderate to severe exposure for symptoms of asbestosis to appear.

Prolonged exposure to asbestos can also cause thickening of the pleura, the membrane that lines the surface of your lungs. A chest X-ray may reveal this thickening, as well as calcium deposits that also may form on this membrane.

Common types of lung cancer appear more frequently in people who were exposed to asbestos than in those who were not exposed.

Cigarette smoking appears to be a key risk factor. The likelihood of developing lung cancer is greater for smokers who were exposed to asbestos than for smokers who have no history of contact with the substance.

One rare form of lung cancer that appears to be unique among people exposed to asbestos is called mesothelioma. It is a cancer that affects the lining of the lung or abdomen.

A mesothelioma is a malignant tumor that may not appear for as many as 20 to 40 years allowing your exposure to asbestos. In the interim, the symptoms and X-ray findings of asbestos usually develop. These tumors often are fatal.

The association between asbestos exposure and mesotheliomas is so close that the appearance of this tumor may be grounds for occupational compensation.

There is no cure for asbestosis. If you experience symptoms of asbestos-related disease, see your physician, who may be able to prescribe medications for temporary relief.

Provide a detailed history of your work activities and any other sources of possible exposure to toxic dusts. Keep in mind that your exposure may have been many years ago, and that you may have only handled the clothes of someone who worked with asbestos.

An abnormal chest X-ray may suggest that you have been exposed to asbestos. But it does not necessarily mean you have asbestosis. Not everyone who has been exposed to asbestos will develop lung dysfunction or cancer.

The disease itself is diagnosed only if you have a history of exposure, suggestive chest X-ray and physical findings, and symptoms of debilitating pulmonary fibrosis (the abnormal development of scar tissue). This becomes important if you wish to seek compensation.

If you are a young or middle-aged worker who works with asbestos, follow all recommended safety precautions. Wear approved face masks and breathing devices capable of filtering out the asbestos fibers.

Be certain that every area of your body is covered, and take care to minimize your contact with the outside of the clothes you wear when working with asbestos.

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