Each year around 4,500 people die due to previous exposure to asbestos. While asbestos is now banned, it was a common building material used during the latter half of the twentieth century. As such, many buildings still contain asbestos, so it still represents a danger to people that works in the construction or building industries. For this reason, it is important to understand the dangers of asbestos, so that you can develop safe working practices when you come into contact with the material and avoid developing any serious illnesses later on in life.
When it is intact, asbestos poses no health risks. However, when it is disturbed, broken or damaged, asbestos materials can release fibres and it is these that can cause potential health problems. Asbestos fibres are shaped like little hooks, so when they are breathed in, the fibres attach themselves to the lining of the lungs and cause an inflammatory reaction. These fibres can sit in the lungs for many years, and over time, the inflammation and damage caused can result in serious lung conditions, including cancers, many of which are fatal.
The onset of asbestos related illnesses usually occurs many years after initial exposure, so even though asbestos is no longer used as a building material, people are becoming ill after suffering exposure 30 or 40 years ago. In addition, asbestos is still found in buildings built or refurbished before 1999, when it was banned, so it still represents a health hazard to those working in the building and construction industries today.
Asbestos exposure causes four main illnesses:
Pleural thickening – this is where the lining of the lung thickens due to the inflammation caused by the fibres lodged in the lung. Typically, thickening tends to get worse over time, resulting in swelling of the lungs, which causes shortness of breath, a tightening in the chest, pain when breathing, and other respiratory problems.
Mesothelioma – this is a cancer caused pretty much exclusively by asbestos exposure. This type of lung cancer effects the lower area of the lung lining, and because symptoms normally only develop once the condition is in its advanced stages, by the time it is diagnosed it is normally terminal.
Asbestos-related cancer – Mesothelioma is not the only type of lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure, as it can cause other forms of the disease. However, due to other factors, such as if a sufferer has smoked, unlike mesothelioma, which is usually exclusively caused by asbestos exposure, it is harder to put the exact cause of these other lung cancers down to asbestos exposure, which can make things, such as claiming for industrial disease compensation, difficult.
Asbestosis – Asbestosis is a serious lung condition caused y prolonged exposure to asbestos. As with other asbestos related diseases, asbestosis occurs many years after exposure. Sufferers of asbestosis can struggle to breathe and in some cases, the condition can prove fatal.
Symptoms and previous exposure
The symptoms of asbestos related diseases do take many years to become evident, so if you have recently been exposed to asbestos it is highly unlikely you will suffer any health problems in the short term. However, symptoms of these diseases are something to look out for in the future. In addition, for anybody that used to work with asbestos, it is important to look out for anything that may be an indication that you have suffered lung damage due to exposure.
Many of the symptoms of the various asbestos related diseases have similar symptoms, such as shortness of breath, a cough that won’t go away, repeated chest infections and tightness or squeezing of the chest. Because of the severity of these illnesses and because early diagnosis means a better chance of successful treatment, if you suffer any such symptoms and believe you have suffered asbestos exposure in the past, it is important to speak to your GP as soon as possible. The removal or disturbance of asbestos should only be undertaken by compitant profesional with an asbestos awareness certificate.
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John Hinds writes for Lojix. His interests include blogging, reading, playing tennis, listening to music and traveling.