Editor’s Note: We’ve all heard horror stories about asbestos. In today’s guest post, Ben Stillwater from Asbestos News reveals the dangers of this infamous substance, signs of exposure, who’s at risk for asbestos-related illness and who needs to watch out for exposure now.
For almost 100 years asbestos was a miracle product. Asbestos is a fibrous, tough mineral that is remarkably fire resistant, has incredible insulating properties and in some of its forms can be woven into textiles.
It was used in all forms of insulating material, in flooring and ceiling tiles, in gaskets, wallboards, cement, adhesives – the list of industrial and consumer products runs into the thousands. Asbestos products were popular and widespread until asbestos was declared a known carcinogen in the mid-1970s and eliminated from usage in 90% of the products where it could be found.
The danger posed by asbestos is the fibers from which it is composed. They are microscopic, light enough to float in a cloud of dust, and are released into the air by deteriorating asbestos products or by disturbing them though cutting, sawing, drilling or tearing.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled by a human, they remain within the body and eventually, can cause havoc. In most cases where asbestos fibers are inhaled, they either get lodged in the lung or, more often, pass through the lung and work their way into the external lining of the lung, a layer of tissue called the pleural mesothelium.
Tens of thousands of workers were exposed to asbestos fibers in plants where asbestos insulation was used to keep heat down. Auto plants, steel mills, oil refineries, chemical plants – all used asbestos products liberally. So did ships, covering their boilers and engine rooms with asbestos.
The result has been the development of asbestosis or mesothelioma cancer in workers from that era and those industries, as well as workers who used asbestos products like brake shoes and gaskets. Malignant mesothelioma often does not become an active disease until decades after the asbestos exposure has occurred. Thus people who worked in a shipyard or power plant in the 1960s or 1970s are, in some cases, just now getting sick.
Mesothelioma is a relatively rare disease today, with new cases being diagnosed in the U.S. at the rate of about 3,000 annually. Often those diagnoses occur long after the disease has been active because mesothelioma symptoms are so similar to those associated with more common diseases.
A persistent, dry cough can often be ignored for a long period. Many doctors will mistake that symptom for pneumonia; chest pain and trouble breathing is often diagnosed as bronchitis. It is only when the common afflictions have been eliminated that physicians will look for a less common problem. For that reason, a mesothelioma prognosis is often relatively grim.
Asbestos exposure today occurs most often when someone is trying to remove an asbestos product such as flooring or insulation that has been in place for decades. Flooring tiles that are crumbling can release asbestos fibers, as can scraping the adhesive that was used to put them down.
Home insulation that was blown into a wall sometime during the 1970s should be removed by a professional. Those “cottage cheese” ceilings and walls that were so popular in the 1960s and 1970s should be tested for asbestos before a young, enthusiastic do-it-yourselfer turns them into dust.
Information on asbestos in the home can be found at this EPA site, along with suggestions about how to deal with suspected asbestos products.
Ben Stillwater is a freelance writer for Asbestos News, an online resource on asbestos and mesothelioma cancer.