What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a fiber that was used as an insulator and fire-retardant in the past. While the EPA and CPSC have banned the use of asbestos for many things and it is no longer used in newer homes, it may still be found in homes and buildings built in a time when asbestos products were available. Asbestos is still used in pipe and furnace insulation, shingles, millboard, textured paints, and floor tiles.
Even without asbestos insulation, this fiber can become airborne through remodeling older homes, or improper protocols when cutting and cleaning up asbestos fibers from new home improvement projects.
Asbestos is also a naturally occurring mineral and can be found in soils and rocks and can be released into the air through construction or weather. So long as the soil and rock remain undisturbed, there is no health risk.
Asbestos and the Lungs
Those who have experienced prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers are at higher risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma and nonmalignant lung and pleural disorders like asbestosis, pleural plaques, pleural thickening, and pleural effusion. The progression of these conditions may continue even after exposure to asbestos has been restricted.
Asbestos-related lung conditions develop over time, up to 15 years or longer after preliminary exposure for those who work(ed) with asbestos. Smokers who are exposed to asbestos are at a significantly greater risk for asbestos-related conditions than non-smokers.
These conditions develop when asbestos fibers are not completely exhaled by the lungs. They remain lodged in the lungs and stay there. As the amount of fibers accumulate over the years, the lung tissue becomes scarred and inflamed. As the scarring and inflammation worsen, it becomes more and more difficult for a person to breathe.
Types of Asbestos-related Conditions
Asbestosis develops when the lung tissues become scarred or inflamed from prolonged exposure. Those who have been exposed to asbestos may develop asbestosis anywhere between 10 to 20 years after initial exposure. Some patients will have no symptoms at all while other patients will have very debilitating and potentially fatal symptoms.
Such symptoms include:
- shortness of breath
- continuous and productive cough
- tightness in the chest
- loss of appetite
- dry, crackling sound with inhaling
This is a rare cancer that affects the lining of the chest cavity, the outside of the lung (pleura) or abdominal area (peritoneum).
Lung cancer is a malignant disease that invades and obstructs the lung's air passages.
There is speculation that asbestos exposure can also lead to gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers, as well as cancers of the kidney, brain, larynx, and bladder. But no definitive correlation has been found.
Asbestos poses no health threat so long as the products that contain asbestos remain undamaged or disturbed. The best idea is to just leave these products alone. If you are planning renovations either on an older house, or using products that still contain asbestos, make sure you contractor is trained and qualified to ensure that any disturbed asbestos is cleaned up. Also, ensure that all damaged or worn asbestos gloves, stove-top pads, or ironing board covers are thrown away and that local health, environmental, and other regulations are followed for proper, safe disposal.
Sources: www.atsdr.cdc.gov/asbestos (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry); www.epa.gov (United States Environmental Protection Agency); www.nhlbi.nih.gov (National Heart Lung and Blood Institute); www.medicinenet.com