We’re often asked about asbestos and how people are exposed to it in this day and age. While there is no specific threat to families in Colorado, and specifically Denver, asbestos is present depending on the age of your home and your particular occupation. Prolonged exposure to asbestos can lead to serious health issues. Although most American companies stopped using asbestos by the 1980s, it can still be found in older buildings and manufactured products. Also, many countries around the world continue to use asbestos in their products.
The highest risk for asbestos exposure exists for occupations in manual labor or skilled trades, such as construction, shipyards, and manufacturing. In the past, the U.S. military relied heavily on products that contained asbestos. Home and commercial renovations of older buildings also represent a hazard, since many building products prior to the 1980s contained asbestos.
Secondary exposure occurs when a worker introduces contaminated clothing into the home, for example. And yet another way that asbestos can pose a threat to human health is through naturally occurring deposits that become disturbed. Exposure occurs when asbestos fibers are released into air and are inhaled. If this occurs over an extended period, the body cannot properly eliminate the fibers. They remain lodged in the respiratory and digestive tracts, causing irritation and cellular degeneration.
Studies have shown that the most common illnesses caused by asbestos can be divided into cancerous and noncancerous diseases.
- Mesothelioma – asbestos is the only definitive cause of this disease. A malignant tumor appears in the diaphragm, lungs, or pericardial tissue of the heart. Symptoms can take up to 50 years to manifest and are easily mistaken for other illnesses at first. Signs can be vague, including chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss.
- Lung cancer – asbestos causes about 4 percent of lung cancer cases. A malignant tumor forms in the bronchial covering and spreads to surrounding tissue. Symptoms include cough, chest pain, weakness, and shortness of breath.
- Other cancers – asbestos has been linked to some forms of ovarian and laryngeal cancer, and current research suggests links to cancers of the pharynx, stomach, and colorectum.
- Asbestosis – inhaled asbestos fibers cause scarring of the lungs. As the body tries to dissolve trapped fibers, it produces an acid that causes severe damage to surrounding tissue. Asbestosis usually occurs in those who have had high exposure over a long period of time and the primary symptom is difficulty in breathing. Symptoms range from cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain to fingernails and toenails that appear oddly round and wide in shape.
- Pleural diseases – this group of diseases include pleural plaques (fibrous thickening of the lung lining); pleural effusion (buildup of fluid around the lungs); diffuse pleural thickening (extensive scarring that thickens the lining of the lungs); and pleurisy (severe inflammation of the pleural lining). Although symptoms often include difficulty breathing, these diseases do not always manifest in this manner. Also, even though these conditions are not precancerous, they may increase chances of developing cancer in the future.
The common thread in all these asbestos-related diseases is their extended latency period. They are usually diagnosed 10 – 30+ years after exposure. No amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe. If you have been exposed to asbestos for any amount of time – and especially if you are experiencing symptoms – contact your doctor immediately. Early diagnosis is essential for a positive outcome.