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What Is Asbestos and Its Exposure Risks?

Older decorative ceilings, similar to this one, may contain small amounts of white asbestos. (Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asbestos)

(guest post by Judy Olsen)

 

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral that possesses fireproof properties that made it a popular material for use in insulation, floor tiles, drywall, pipes, sealants, shingles, siding, and drywall. Asbestos was also used for crock pots, hair dryers, and car brakes. Even baby powder had, at one point, asbestos content.

Asbestos, however, earned notoriety in the 1980s after decades of widespread use, with the discovery that it has a severe impact on health. Once the adverse effects of asbestos became known to the public, many countries have phased out or banned the material outright. These days, when a building up for demolition is suspected of asbestos contamination, asbestos abatement has to be done first before demolishing it.

Health risks associated with asbestos exposure

For all its ability to withstand chemicals and high temperatures, asbestos fibers break easily into practically invisible pieces once they’re damaged, and these pieces can make their way into the lungs of people who handle asbestos-contaminated materials. Asbestos buildup in the lungs over time will then lead to the following severe medical conditions:

Mesothelioma

This cancer may take a long time to develop, but once a person is diagnosed with mesothelioma, the illness most closely associated with exposure to asbestos, he or she stands a high risk of succumbing to the disease.

A mesothelioma patient is likely to experience pain in the chest or abdomen, shortness of breath, fever or night sweats, dry cough or wheezing, muscle weakness, fatigue, and fluid around the lungs.

Asbestosis

Unlike mesothelioma, asbestosis is not cancer, but that doesn’t make it any less serious. Years of heavy exposure to the mineral could lead to asbestosis, in which inhaled asbestos fibers scar lung tissues and cause the patient to experience shortness of breath, among other things. In severe cases, asbestosis has proven to be fatal. Science has yet to find a treatment for this disease.

Lung cancer

People who are exposed regularly—and for an extended period at that—to asbestos already have it bad, but if they are smokers as well, their risk for lung cancer becomes much higher.

Are you at risk of asbestos-related illnesses?

As stated earlier, asbestos has been a popular material for construction and other everyday products for decades. That means countless people have been exposed, and continue to be exposed, to its deadly fibers. After all, the buildings we live, eat, and sleep in could be contaminated with asbestos. The mineral was also used in water pipes, and that means the water we wash with and drink today could be tainted with asbestos. We could be inhaling those fibers whenever we use the hair dryer or any of the asbestos-contaminated everyday products we come into contact with.

If we’re worried about asbestos exposure when we don’t handle the mineral all the time, imagine those people whose job is to clear them out of a building. Construction and industrial workers are at most risk, although those who serve in the military are just as exposed to asbestos as the latter with their widespread use in warships from aircraft carriers to frigates.

US never banned Asbestos

Surprisingly, the United States has never banned asbestos despite clear evidence of the risks it poses to one’s health. Most First World countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and all members of the European Union have taken asbestos out of play, but the US still imports it. It’s still popular in the US for use in fireproofing materials, roofing materials, gaskets, and friction products, and there is no regulation, much less a ban, on asbestos in sight.

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