What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a carcinogen that can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis and other serious respiratory ailments. Asbestos is a mineral fiber that has been used commonly in a variety of building construction materials for insulation and as a fire-retardant. Thousands of building materials were manufactured with asbestos including insulation, pipe insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, adhesives, roof shingles, siding, textured ceilings and joint compounds. Over time, these materials degrade or are disturbed, and their asbestos fibers are released. The EPA and CPSC have banned several asbestos products. Manufacturers have also voluntarily limited uses of asbestos. Today, asbestos is most commonly found in older homes, in pipe and furnace insulation materials, asbestos shingles, millboard, textured paints and other coating materials, and floor tiles.
Why is Asbestos a health hazard?
Asbestos is made up of microscopic bundles of fibers that may become airborne when disturbed. If these fibers get into the air, they can be inhaled into the lungs where they may cause significant health problems. Researchers still have not determined a “safe level” of exposure but we do know that the higher the concentration of fibers and the longer the exposure, the greater the risk of contracting an asbestos-related disease. Some of these health problems include:
- Asbestosis – a lung disease that causes scarring of the lungs. Eventually, this scarring may become so severe that the lungs cannot function. The latency period (meaning the time between the exposure and the onset of disease) is often 25-40 years.
- Mesothelioma – a cancer of the lining of the lung and chest and/or the lining of the abdominal wall. Asbestos exposure is one of the few causes of this cancer. The latency period for mesothelioma is often 15-50 years.
- Lung Cancer – Lung cancer can be caused by exposure to asbestos. A person has a much greater chance (50 to 84 times greater) of developing lung cancer if they are exposed to asbestos and they smoke. Cancer of the gastrointestinal tract can also be caused by asbestos exposure. The latency period for these cancers is often 15-30 years.
Despite the common misconception, exposure to asbestos fibers does not cause headaches, upper respiratory irritation or other immediate symptoms. As mentioned above, the effects often go unnoticed for 15-50 years. Most asbestos-related diseases don’t arise until years after exposure. Currently in the US, 12,000 to 15,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases, according to the Environmental Working Group. This number continues to increase.