Legacy Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risks

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Asbestos mining and manufacturing have diminished since the 1970s, when serious health hazards were directly linked to its exposure. Since that time, asbestos has been highly regulated by federal, state, and local agencies. For example, in the late 1970s the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the use of asbestos in wallboard and gas fireplace logs. However, “legacy asbestos” – asbestos materials previously used over the decades – is estimated to be present in over 700,000 public and commercial structures. Legacy asbestos may also be found in over 137,000 schools and in older homes.

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a ban on the use of chrysotile asbestos, the only known asbestos the United States continues to import. Products containing this form of asbestos include automotive parts such as aftermarket brakes and linings, brake blocks, and gaskets. Even if the EPA is successful in implementing the ban, legacy asbestos will continue to pose health threats to people who are exposed to it. One of the most devastating health effects of asbestos exposure is cancer. Read on to discover more about asbestos exposure and cancer.

How can people be exposed to asbestos?

Asbestos can be inhaled or ingested. Most exposure comes from inhaling airborne asbestos fibers. This can occur during the mining process, when making or installing asbestos-containing products, when renovating or remodeling, or when an asbestos-containing product deteriorates and releases tiny fibers into the air.

The fibers can also be swallowed. For example, a water supply can be contaminated when asbestos-containing rocks or soil erode nearby, or corrosion causes the deterioration of an asbestos-containing cement pipe.

Who is at greatest risk of exposure?

The heaviest exposures are for people who work in asbestos-related trades. Since the 1940s, millions of Americans have been exposed through working in the shipbuilding industry, mining and milling of raw asbestos, manufacturing asbestos-containing products, and working in the construction industry (installing insulation and sheetrock, for example). Demolition and renovation workers, firefighters, and automobile mechanics may also be at high risk of exposure.

Secondhand exposure can occur when fibers clinging to work clothes are carried into the home. The fibers can be released into the air or transferred to others through contact with contaminated surfaces.

Why is asbestos so dangerous?

When tiny asbestos fibers are disturbed and become airborne, they can easily be inhaled. Once inside the lungs, they become trapped and, over time, cause inflammation, scarring, and even genetic damage (cellular mutation). The fibers can also damage the lining of the stomach and intestinal tract if they are ingested. While diseases tend to develop from heavy exposure over an extended period, no amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe.

What cancers are associated with asbestos exposure?

The two most common forms of cancer linked to asbestos exposure are mesothelioma and lung cancer. Other cancers have been associated with asbestos, too, such as laryngeal cancer and ovarian cancer. Further, some studies suggest a correlation between asbestos exposure and breast or colon cancer.

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer almost exclusively linked to asbestos exposure. Malignant tumors form in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or heart. Pleural mesothelioma affects the lungs; peritoneal mesothelioma affects the abdominal cavity; and pericardial mesothelioma affects the heart.

It can take anywhere from 15 to 50 years for this cancer to develop. Symptoms include dry cough, shortness of breath, chest or abdominal pain, fever or night sweats, fatigue, pleural effusion, and muscle weakness. There is currently no cure for this disease.

What about the other cancers?

According to studies of asbestos-exposed workers, inhalation of asbestos fibers has also been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer. Greater exposure means a greater risk of developing lung cancer. It usually takes at least 15 years from time of exposure for the cancer to develop, and smoking increases the risk.

If fibers become trapped in the tissues of the larynx (voice box) as they are traveling to the lungs, cancer can develop here. Other factors such as smoking, heavy alcohol use, and exposure to other toxins can increase the risk for this asbestos-related cancer.

Finally, asbestos fibers can reach the ovaries by traveling through the bloodstream, lymphatic system, or reproductive system. Ongoing studies continue to research the connection between asbestos-containing talcum powder and ovarian cancer.

Nearly 40,000 deaths annually in the U.S. are attributed to asbestos. Further, an estimated 1.3 million workers are potentially exposed each year. These figures are stark reminders that it is important to be aware of asbestos and its dangers. If you have concerns about asbestos in your home or commercial building, contact a certified asbestos abatement contractor. If asbestos is discovered, they will develop a comprehensive plan to effectively manage or remove and dispose of asbestos-containing material.

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