Health effects of asbestos exposure


There are four major health effects caused by exposure to asbestos:

Everyone knows the dangers of asbestos

  1. Asbestosis
    Asbestosis is a chronic chest disease that is caused by inhalation of high concentrations of asbestos fibres. The condition can develop 10 to 20 years after initial exposure. Asbestos fibres initially damage cell membranes in the lungs. As a result, the lung tissue becomes hardened and forms scars (fibrosis).

    In the initial stages, asbestos-related fibrosis is mostly in the outer lung tissues. As the disease progresses, fibrosis becomes widespread throughout the lung. The hardening lung tissue restricts oxygen intake, making breathing difficult. Fibrosis also lessens the lungs’ ability to process oxygen and remove carbon dioxide waste. This is known as restrictive lung disease as it reduces the total lung capacity. A person suffering from asbestosis is vulnerable to pneumonia and bronchitis and can die from their effects.

    What are the symptoms?
    Shortness of breath on exertion is usually the earliest symptom of asbestosis. However, a few patients may first present with a dry cough or chest pain unrelated to exercise. As the disease progresses, shortness of breath (dyspnoea) becomes more evident, may be present at rest, and may be associated with a productive cough. Other symptoms include persistent coughing, chest pain, phlegm, lung infections, pulmonary hypertension and heart failure.

    Detection
    In a lung X-ray, early abnormalities of asbestosis are difficult to detect. In more advanced
    asbestosis, the chest X-ray is obviously abnormal and is characterised by predominantly irregular opacity and/or linear shadows, which are particularly evident in the lower lobes of the lung. It can also present as a cloudy or ground glass appearance in the X-ray.

  2. Benign Pleural DiseaseBenign
    Pleural Disease commonly occurs before fibrosis. It happens in the lining of the lung (pleura). Patches of thickening of the pleural membrane are known as pleural plaques. The plaques show up on an X-ray and are an indictor of past asbestos exposure. While worrying to many workers, they are not in themselves a cause of lung disease.
  3. Mesothelioma
    Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lung lining (pleura). It can result from even low level exposures. Crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown or grey asbestos) have the most potent documented effects in producing this tumor. This type of cancer can take between 30 to 45 years to develop after initial exposure to asbestos. It is an aggressive cancer and is extremely painful. Mesothelioma can lead to death within a few months and sufferers rarely live longer than 12-18 months.

    What are the symptoms?
    The usual symptoms of a person with a pleural mesothelioma are chest pain and shortness of breath. The pain is described as dull and aching, but it can be very severe. The shortness of breath is rapidly progressive and may be due to lung compression or restriction of respiratory movement by the tumour.

    Some asbestos fibres can penetrate through the lung to the stomach or bowel. Mesothelioma can also occur in the abdominal cavity (peritoneum). Diffuse abdominal pain, abdominal swelling or progressive loss of weight may also be experienced.

    Detection and treatment
    A routine chest X-ray may lead to the diagnosis of an asymptomatic pleural mesothelioma. There is no effective treatment currently available. To date, chemotherapy and radiotherapy have not proved useful. However, research is being done in Australia to find new ways of treating mesothelioma. These include gene therapy and manipulating enzymes to control the progression of pleural mesothelioma.

    Detection and treatment
    A routine chest X-ray may lead to the diagnosis of an asymptomatic pleural mesothelioma. There is no effective treatment currently available. To date, chemotherapy and radiotherapy have not proved useful. However, research is being done in Australia to find new ways of treating mesothelioma. These include gene therapy and manipulating enzymes to control the progression of pleural mesothelioma.

  4. Lung cancer
    Lung cancer (of the bronchial tubes, lung and alveoli) can also develop after exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is one of a large number of agents linked to the development of lung cancer. Workers who were exposed to asbestos and who smoked or were exposed to second-hand smoke run a much greater risk of getting lung cancer. The risk is eight times higher than other smokers, seventeen times higher than asbestos workers who did not smoke and eighty-seven times higher than the general non-smoking public. The risk of lung cancer appears to be greatest when asbestosis is also present.

    What are the symptoms?
    The earliest symptom is an irritative cough with increasing sputum production. Further symptoms include blood tinged sputum and coughing up clear blood. Chest pain can also be experienced as well as chest infections that fail to clear up within two or three weeks.Detection and treatment
    X rays can show evidence of lung cancer. Examination of sputum samples is also a valuable aid in diagnosing the cause of the cancer, particularly in the case of bronchial carcinoma. Currently the best hope of recovery from lung cancer is surgical removal of the early lesions. Eez E Viewgnosis for more widespread lung cancer is poor.

Smoking and asbestos

The health effects of asbestos strike at smokers and non-smokers alike. But cigarette smoking greatly increases the risk of death from lung cancer in people who are exposed to asbestos. Workers exposed to asbestos are 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer than unexposed general population. In workers who smoke and have a high exposure to asbestos this risk of lung cancer can be up to 100 times.

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