By now, most people are aware that asbestos is a dangerous mineral that can cause serious health problems. What you may not know is that the risks from asbestos exposure are long-lived and stealthy. Plus, despite the fact that the dangers of asbestos exposure have been well understood for 100 years, there is still asbestos in our built environment. No matter what your profession or where you live, it makes sense to understand the dangers of asbestos exposure so you can better protect yourself and those you care about.
The Dangers of Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos is a mineral. What makes this mineral so dangerous to humans is that it forms into long, fine fibers. These hair-like fibers contain millions of much smaller fibers, invisible to the naked eye. The microscopic mini-fibers are easily dislodged from the mineral and can become airborne. The airborne particles can be inhaled, which is why asbestos most commonly causes diseases of the lungs.
The human body has a genius method for cleaning and healing itself. Your immune system is constantly identifying and expelling alien or harmful substances from your body. Unfortunately, those microscopic asbestos fibers are thin and sharp. They can become stuck in tender lung tissue and dig in, resisting the body’s attempts to clean them out.
Over time, asbestos fibers lodged in your lungs and burrowed into surrounding tissue can cause irritation and inflammation. Eventually, often over the course of several decades, that irritation may develop into lung cancer or mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining around the lung.
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that is caused by those tiny asbestos fibers. Not everyone who was exposed to asbestos will become sick because of asbestos exposure. The greater your exposure the greater the chances of developing mesothelioma. You could also develop asbestos-related lung cancer or another disease of asbestos exposure. 3,000 Americans who are exposed to asbestos – usually in a workplace – will develop mesothelioma each year.
While the good news is that the majority of people will not develop this dreaded disease, even one case is too much. There is no cure for mesothelioma and more than 90% of patients die within five years after diagnosis.
Who Is Most Likely to Have Asbestos Exposure?
Before you panic about asbestos exposure, remember that your chances of developing mesothelioma go up with greater exposure. There are certain professions and age groups who have elevated risks because they worked with asbestos before worker protections were in place.
If you worked in any of these settings before the 1970s, when growing awareness (and asbestos litigation) led some industries to stop using asbestos and others to develop some safety protocols to protect workers, your risk of developing mesothelioma or another disease caused by asbestos exposure is higher. While that era may seem too long ago to worry about, mesothelioma can take 50 years or more to develop after exposure, so those who worked with asbestos in the last century aren’t out of the woods yet.
The workers most likely to suffer from the effects of asbestos exposure include:
- Workers in boiler rooms (where asbestos was used as a heat insulating material), particularly on Navy ships
- Construction workers who installed or removed asbestos insulation and other products containing asbestos
- Workers in asbestos mines or processing plants
- Employees of corporations whose products contained asbestos (such as brake linings) and the workers at companies that used those asbestos-laden products
- Military personnel, especially Vietnam veterans and those who served on naval vessels.
Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of asbestos in the built environment. While there are now protocols for safe asbestos removal, not all construction crews follow those guidelines. As a result, some workers still experience unsafe levels of asbestos exposure to this day.
Awareness of the danger of asbestos exposure is important. While you can’t do anything (yet) to change whether or not you will eventually develop mesothelioma, understanding the signs and symptoms and getting regular checkups can lead to an early diagnosis. The earlier you catch your asbestos related disease, the better your treatment options and the longer your survival time is likely to be.
Lurking Asbestos Exposure
Many people who develop mesothelioma have a clear understanding of where they got their asbestos exposure. They were sailors in the Navy during the Korean War or spent years installing Bendix brake linings as an auto mechanic. Sometimes, however, asbestos exposure comes from less obvious sources.
There have been many cases of mesothelioma among the wives of men who worked with asbestos. These women suffered asbestos exposure when they washed their husbands’ work clothes, which were covered in those tiny, invisible asbestos fibers. In fact, Kazan Law won a verdict of over $27 million for a woman whose asbestos exposure came from contact with her husband’s work clothing, who worked installing insulation.
There are cases where people who aren’t connected to professions most linked with asbestos exposure and mesothelioma have become ill because of asbestos. The deadly fibers can be found in ceiling tiles, drywall, and insulation, especially in older buildings. Asbestos can become liberated (and dangerous) during building renovations, DIY home improvements, or just daily wear and tear as the structure ages. There is still asbestos in the walls and ceilings and boiler rooms of some schools, apartment buildings, homes, and office buildings. There was even a case where a retired judge developed cancer because of exposure to asbestos in his New Jersey courthouse.
Awareness can help prevent asbestos exposure. Find out if insulation, ceiling tiles, or other materials in your home or workplace contain asbestos before undertaking renovations. If they do, use the services of a contactor trained to safely handle asbestos remediation. If you work in an environment where you may be exposed to toxic asbestos fibers, educate yourself about best practices for protecting your lungs and insist that your employer follow them.
States with the Most Asbestos Exposure
When it comes to asbestos exposure, all states in the US are not created equal. California has the highest rate of deaths due to mesothelioma and other diseases caused by asbestos exposure, at more than 4,000 per year. Florida is next, followed by New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
What all these states have in common is that they were home to sites where asbestos was mined or products using asbestos were manufactured or extensively used. Other hot spots around the United States include Libby, Montana, home of a large mine supplying vermiculite that was contaminated with asbestos. Detroit’s auto manufacturing industry was the source of exposure for many Michigan workers. Washington, though a small state, has a high per capita rate of mesothelioma because of asbestos exposure among shipyard workers. Former hubs of manufacturing and industry in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other Midwestern states have also seen elevated levels of illness related to asbestos exposure.
The bottom line is that, due to years of unfettered use of asbestos in the United States, it will be many more decades before we see our last case of mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure. Until then, knowledge about the risks is your best protection.