Asbestosis is a restrictive lung disease which can be fatal. In addition, exposure to asbestos can cause lung cancer and a cancer of the lung lining called mesothelioma. While lung cancer has a number of associated causes, asbestosis and mesothelioma are uniquely associated with exposure to asbestos. It has also been proven that smokers are up to 50 times more likely to contract an asbestos related disease if they are exposed to asbestos.
Inhalation of asbestos fibres is the primary cause of asbestos-related diseases. These fibres are very small and sharp, roughly 600 times thinner than a human hair! - If they are not expelled through coughing or mucus secretions, they become embedded in the lung, throat or stomach lining causing several medical conditions. These include:
What If I've Been Exposed to Asbestos? How Can Asbestos Affect My Health?
From studies of people who were exposed to asbestos in factories and shipyards, we know that breathing high levels of asbestos fibres can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer; mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity; and asbestosis, in which the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue.
The risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma increases with the number of fibres inhaled i.e. it is cumulative. People who contract asbestos related diseases have generally been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time, although this is not always the case. Perhaps the scariest part of these diseases is that the symptoms do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos.
Most people exposed to small amounts of asbestos, as we all are in our daily lives, do not develop these health problems. However, if disturbed, asbestos material may release asbestos fibres, which can be inhaled into the lungs. The fibres can remain there for a long time, increasing the risk of disease. Asbestos material that would crumble easily if handled, or that has been sawed, scraped, or sanded into a powder is more likely to create a health hazard.
Individuals exposed to asbestos should inform their doctor of their history and any symptoms. An exam, including a chest x-ray and a lung function test, may be recommended. Symptoms may not become apparent until long after exposure. If you have any of the following symptoms, you should consult your doctor without delay:
In the UK alone there are approximately 4000 deaths per year form asbestos related diseases. Sadly this is due to increase to approximately 10,000 people per year by the year 2020 which should be the peak of asbestos related deaths. People may moan and cry about how much it costs to meet asbestos compliance and to work to the regulations, however it is all based around reducing these figures and ensuring that we can go about our daily lives without being exposed to hazardous asbestos fibres. The groups most at risk of asbestos in the UK are currently tradesman and maintenance workers which is why the HSE now make it mandatory that anyone in these roles should undergo annual asbestos awareness training
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