Asbestos – From Past to Present
Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring silicate minerals that have been in domestic as well as professional use for centuries. Ancient Egyptians used to embalm their dead with a fabric made of asbestos. Due to its degradation-resistant properties, asbestos served the purpose well.1 However, there are several asbestos health risks, which make it lethal.
In our modern world, it was heavily relied upon to build marine ships and fire-resistant household items such as table cloths and napkins. Houses built in the early 20th century through the 1950s used to incorporate asbestos as an insulation and soundproofing layer of the houses. However, in 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned its domestic use. Similarly, in 1988, The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) took a significant step and banned asbestos altogether because of asbestos health risks.
These developments make us ponder what makes this mineral so dangerous that despite its immense benefits, it was banned by the modern world.
Asbestos – a Dangerous Substance
Asbestos is known as a human carcinogen; it is a significant threat to the human lungs. Thanks to multiple kinds of research in the second half of the 20th century that proved its carcinogenic properties, regulators decided to take action by the early 1970s. First, CPSC and then EPA banned the use of asbestos. The European Union (EU), however, stalled a bit and banned it in 20052 due to asbestos health risks. Many alternative materials have been recommended by the authorities to replace asbestos. These materials act as substitutes of the asbestos, but they still have not been able to fill up the gap completely.
The reason why asbestos is considered a highly dangerous substance is that it poses several asbestos health risks, such as respiratory complications that lead up to respiratory failure or many different types of cancers (called mesotheliomas). Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the protective lining of the heart (pericardium), lungs (pleura), abdomen (peritoneum), and the testes (tunica vaginalis).
Lung problems typically start after the lodging of fine dust or fibers of asbestos in lower regions of the lungs. These micro-fibers irritate the bronchial tree and, ultimately, scar human lungs if this process is allowed to continue. Asbestos fibers are also capable of tweaking tumor genes in a person working in close proximity of asbestos such as miners and construction workers. This process, however, requires multiple years or even decades of exposure. This damage will intensify itself if the surrounding environment is full of concentrated, toxic dust of this silicate mineral.
There are six different variables of asbestos found in the world. All of them are carcinogenic, but they differ in their physical and hazardous properties. The mechanism of this damage is very similar in that the mineral reaches the innermost, lower parts of the lungs, and stays there. We are already aware that asbestos fibers are very resistant to destruction. The body’s defense mechanics fail in getting rid of these fibers, as a direct result, inflammation ensues, and scarring develops. More exposure to these fibers results in increased inflammation and additional scar tissue formation inside of what was originally a very healthy lung. If this scar tissue gets big enough, lungs can lose their expanding capability, which leads to the likes of asbestosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Asbestosis is a cluster of respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and chronic cough, appearing in people who are exposed to asbestos over a more extended period.
Some of these fibers can cause cancer in the body, mainly in the chest and abdomen. The primary organs inflicted by this type of cancer are the lungs, larynx, abdomen, testes, and the pleural lining. Nearly all of the damage associated with asbestos will have a significant impact on the patient’s physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. Some, if not all, will require supplemental oxygen to complete their daily tasks.
Asbestos – Lethal in all Forms
Most of the asbestos found in the world is white and technically named chrysotile. Although chrysotile is inherently dangerous, it does not match in its lethal properties to blue asbestos. Blue asbestos is made of extremely fine fibers that are readily inhaled. Blue asbestos, which is known as crocidolite, fell out of favor because it is less heat-resistant than its counterparts. Other types include amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite. All of them are deemed carcinogenic and hazardous to human health and lives.
While humans were busy using asbestos for various purposes over several decades, its potential implications were largely ignored. It was not until the mid-1940s when it was linked to possible respiratory illnesses. In 1943, a German scientist named H.W. Wedler reported for the first time that asbestos could damage the lungs and cause pleural mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is now considered to be one of the most lethal sequelae of long-term asbestos exposure.3
Asbestos-related respiratory illnesses range from benign but chronic diseases to malignant tumors. The benign conditions include asbestosis, COPD, pleural effusion, and pleural plaques, which, if not managed effectively, can lead to severe lung failures. Fatal conditions include mesothelioma, testicular cancer, abdominal cancer, and lung cancer. Benign complications of asbestos exposure are equally debilitating. These conditions are capable of hindering one’s quality of life and ultimately deteriorating human health in such a way that only death provides them with respite.
Here’s What Asbestos Health Risks Are
Human life is sustainable on earth only because we are free to breathe in the fresh air. Lungs receive oxygen from the air, which is delivered to our bodies through efficient lung lining and its mechanics. But have we ever wondered what happens if, somehow, our oxygen delivery mechanism fails? Well, in that case, we are unable to breathe correctly, and the body becomes dysfunctional.
Asbestos works by disrupting our robust oxygen delivery mechanism, and our lungs succumb when they are exposed to finer asbestos particles or fibers. Although all forms of asbestos pose grave health hazards, some of its variations are a more significant threat to human life. The most dangerous type of asbestos is the friable asbestos. Friable means that it can be easily crumbled by hands, thus releasing inhalational dust or fibers in the air. Any person can inhale these fibers in their proximity working for a long time. This dust is exceptionally resistant to degradation, and this is why the human defense mechanism can’t get rid of it. Overtime (which may span over a decade), this dust keeps accumulating in the respiratory system and hinders its ability to ventilate effectively. This is the mechanics when a person who is long exposed to this mineral develops asbestosis. When lung tissue is degraded and replaced by ineffective scar tissue, lungs develop COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Both Asbestosis and COPD are overlapping conditions and together add up significantly to the misery of the patient.
Mesothelioma is primarily a cancer of lung pleura, but it can also involve structures such as heart pericardium and peritoneal membranes. Up to this date, it is one of the incurable cancers with a prognosis that isn’t very comforting. Most of the patients are only expected to survive for 1-2 years after receiving their diagnosis. Much of this is because only 15 to 20 percent of patients qualify for the surgery and also because it takes longer for symptoms and damage to appear. Another factor that delays and hinders the diagnosis, and then its operation, is the economic affordability first to be tested and then treated.
Curative surgery usually involves the removal of the diseased portion of the affected organ. In the case of COPD or asbestosis, the scarred lobe of the lung is taken out. This is usually known as lobectomy. This is only true if the damage or scarring has not involved the complete organ or it hasn’t spread to other organs. Keeping in mind the destructive nature of mesothelioma and other cancers like those of abdomen or larynx, less than a quarter of patients succeed in getting a curative treatment. The rest of the patients usually resort to palliative treatments. One particular surgery for mesothelioma is called extrapleural pneumonectomy, which involves excision of the entire lungs along with its pleura.
Asbestos is a Global Killer
It is worth mentioning that globally, 90,000 deaths are attributable to asbestos and its respiratory complications. In the USA alone, nearly 40,000 deaths occur due to asbestos every year, and even today, there are 1.3 million Americans at risk of asbestos exposure. International restrictions and embargoes on asbestos use have undoubtedly helped in bringing down the disability and mortality associated with this mineral.
It is mentionable that up to this day, certain professions put humans at a higher risk of asbestos exposure. This is because asbestos is still being used in many constructions or mechanical utilities in developing countries. Vehicular brake pads, for example, always use asbestos to absorb the frictional heat after the application of brakes. Scientists are researching day and night to keep the workers associated with these occupations safe. These include construction workers, firefighters, miners, and shipyard workers4, along with few others. Thankfully, better protective gear has now been developed and is gradually being adopted by such industries.
The economic impact of these health complications is burdensome not only for an individual family but also for the governments. It is estimated that healthcare costs for the asbestos-related complications outweigh any potential economic benefits. According to a WHO report, nearly 2.4 to 3.9 billion dollars are spent in the U.S.A every year on the diseases which are directly linked to asbestos. This excludes the suffering and disability costs associated with the asbestos.
We have concluded from different statistics and medical complications that asbestos causes a slow death. Significant morbidity is associated with this silicate. Every precaution must be adopted to reduce exposure to asbestos, and global leaders should also weigh in to help the cause for a world free of asbestos-associated respiratory illnesses.
If you have been exposed to asbestos at work or otherwise, please consult with an asbestos or mesothelioma attorney to receive proper compensation for your suffering.