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Asbestos Poisoning

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was used commonly in buildings for insulation.  Asbestos fibers are exceptionally strong, flexible and are resistant to heat and chemicals degradation.  Asbestos is commonly found in ceiling tiles, flooring and pipes among other things.  It is estimated that 30 million tons of asbestos was utilized in the United States in about 3,000 different products in the automotive, textile, construction, and electronics industries.  

Asbestos has come under fire over the past few decades once a connection was made between asbestos exposure and deteriorating health was established.  Asbestos poisoning is a general term given to any ill health resulting from asbestos exposure. 

If left untouched and unhampered, asbestos is not an immediate hazard.  It is only when asbestos are disturbed or damaged that it becomes a hazard.  The asbestos minerals are friable, meaning they have a tendency to break up and separate into microscopic-size particles.  Once broken into such small particles, they can remain airborne and can be easily inhaled.  Once inhaled, asbestos can cause a variety of disorders and diseases manifesting itself in a wide array of symptoms.

People who have been occupationally exposed to asbestos are at a high risk for asbestos poisoning.  Even in ancient times, the Greek geographer, Strabo, and the Roman naturalist/doctor/historian/all-round good guy, Pliny the Elder, observed that slaves working in asbestos mines were more prone to dying younger due to "sickness in the lungs". 

Their observations mainly went unnoticed until the turn of the twentieth century.   

But shortly after the turn of the 20th century, medical professionals began to see an emerging trend between an unusually large number of deaths related to pulmonary disease and lung diseases themselves in areas that had asbestos mines and asbestos fabrication industries.  Researchers began to notice a large number of deaths and lung problems in asbestos mining towns.  In 1917 and 1918, it was observed by several studies in the United States that asbestos workers were dying unnaturally young.  Even insurance companies began decreasing policies and benefits for asbestos workers as early as 1908. 

More definitive evidence of asbestos poisoning surfaced in the mid-to-late twentieth century, because of the long incubation period of asbestos required before the developing of asbestos-related diseases.  Depending on the concentration and longevity of asbestos exposure, symptoms of disease won't present itself from a few years to over forty years. 

As mentioned earlier, individuals who are occupationally exposed to asbestos, be it in asbestos mines, asbestos fabrication, or construction, have a higher chance of asbestos poisoning.  Doctors often compare the dangers of asbestos to those of smoking cigarettes.  The analogy is straightforward: the more cigarettes one smokes, the greater the danger for developing lung cancer.  Similarly, the more one is exposed to asbestos, the greater the chance for developing an asbestos- related disease.  This is why asbestos poisoning is often called an occupational hazard disease, because the people who commonly work with the material are the most at risk for developing an asbestos related disease.

There are three major diseases that are triggered by asbestos poisoning.  These are asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer.  A more comprehensive review of these diseases can be found on separate web pages. 

Asbestosis is caused when asbestos fibers are inhaled and become trapped in the lungs.  In response to the foreign objects (asbestos fibers), the body tries to get rid of it by attempting to dissolve the particles by producing an acid.  Unfortunately, the acid has virtually no impact on the asbestos fibers, but is detrimental to the lung tissues.  With continual acid secretions, scarring of the lung tissue will lead to pulmonary fibrosis.  The scarring can become so severe that it will reduce the functioning of the lungs. 

Mesothelioma is a cancer of affecting the outside tissue of the lungs – the pleura, peritoneum, and pericardium.  Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is solely attributed to asbestos poisoning.  Symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until 10 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos.  Shortness of breath and pain in the chest due to an accumulation of fluid in the pleura are often symptoms of pleural mesothelioma.  Mesothelioma, like other cancers, can be lethal if it metastasize and invade other organs.  The prognosis for mesothelioma is not good.  It is estimated that people die within two to four years once mesothelioma is diagnosed.

Lung Cancer can also be caused by exposure to asbestos.  Lung cancer is a malignant tumour of the lungs, and is the most lethal malignant tumor worldwide.  Most commonly it is bronchogenic carcinoma - about 90% of lung cancer cases.  The chances of developing lung cancer from asbestos are greatly increased with smoking. The exposure to manifestation period for lung cancer from asbestos exposure is from 15 to 35 years.

Other diseases caused by asbestos poisoning include:

Asbestos Warts – this is caused when the sharp asbestos fibers are lodge in the skin.  When this occurs, the body responds with inflammation that causes skin to overgrow the asbestos fibers.  This can lead to callous-like growths around the affected region.  It is regarded as a relatively harmless condition. 

Pleural Diseases – Can be caused when asbestos fibers penetrate the pleura, a sac that covers the outer surface of the lungs.  Pleural plaques are discrete fibrous or partially calcified thickened area of the pleura.  Diffuse pleural thickening is similar to pleural plaques and is sometimes associated with asbestosis.  If these pleural diseases are extensive and widespread, it can cause impairment of lung function.

Other Cancers – besides mesothelioma and lung cancers, other cancers has been shown to be associated with asbestos exposure and poisoning.  These are all gastrointestinal cancers with cancers of the esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum being reported.  Also, asbestos poisoning has been linked to some cases of larynx cancer.  

Although the current use of asbestos and asbestos products has dramatically decreased, they are still found in many residential and commercial settings and continue to pose a health risk to workers and others.  Research has yet to determine a safe level of exposure to asbestos, but one thing is for certain; the more prolonged the exposure, the greater the risk becomes for developing an asbestos related disease. 

Until 1972, most of the buildings in North America were constructed with asbestos, including schools, offices and homes.  At the time, no one had any idea that when inhaled asbestos was deadly.  Today, people and asbestos precariously coexist in old buildings – which may lead to future asbestos-related problems since symptoms of asbestos poisoning can go unnoticed for many years.  This somewhat reflects that society has not necessarily taken all the appropriate precautions to protect the public despite our increasing knowledge about asbestos and its hazards.