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Mesothelioma Help Center - Asbestos Exposure

Significant exposure to any type of asbestos will increase the risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma and nonmalignant lung and pleural disorders, including asbestosis, pleural plaques, pleural thickening, and pleural effusions. This conclusion is based on observations of these diseases in groups of workers with cumulative exposures ranging from about 5 to 1,200 fiber-year/mL. Such exposures would result from 40 years of occupational exposure to air concentrations of 0.125 to 30 fiber/mL. See Detecting Asbestos, for typical levels of concentration. The conclusion is supported by results from animal and mechanistic studies.

Asbestos as a cause of mesothelioma was discovered in connection with occupational exposure to the mineral. Asbestos miners, factory workers, shipyard workers and construction workers were the most likely to contract the deadly disease and amongst the first victims. Mesothelioma is a latent disease that can take anywhere from 30 to 40 years to become symptomatic. A number of cases of mesothelioma where therefore reported within similar windows of time, displaying similar occupational backgrounds. Establishing the link back to asbestos (which was already linked to a number of aforementioned diseases) was a relatively simple task.

Although other causes of mesothelioma have not been ruled out, asbestos exposure is the only known cause thus far.

Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure

Chronic exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma, and nonmalignant lung and pleural disorders. Evidence in humans comes from epidemiologic studies as well as numerous studies of workers exposed to asbestos in a variety of occupational settings. Tremolite asbestos exposure has been associated with an increased incidence of disease in vermiculite miners and millers from Libby, Montana. This evidence is supported by reports of increased incidences of nonmalignant respiratory diseases, lung cancer, and mesothelioma in villages in various regions of the world that have traditionally used tremolite-asbestos whitewashes in homes or have high surface deposits of tremolite asbestos and by results from animal studies.
Risk Factors

Various factors determine how exposure to asbestos affects an individual:

  • Exposure concentration - what was the concentration of asbestos fibers?
  • Exposure duration - how long did the exposure time period last?
  • Exposure frequency - how often during that time period was the person exposed?
  • Size, shape and chemical makeup of asbestos fibers:

Long and thin fibers are expected to reach the lower airways and alveolar regions of the lung, to be retained in the lung longer, and to be more toxic than short and wide fibers or particles. Wide particles are expected to be deposited in the upper respiratory tract and not to reach the lung and pleura, the sites of asbestos-induced toxicity. Short, thin fibers, however, may also play a role in asbestos pathogenesis. Fibers of amphibole asbestos such as tremolite asbestos, actinolite asbestos, and crocidolite asbestos are retained longer in the lower respiratory tract than chrysotile fibers of similar dimension.

  • Individual risk factors, such as a person's history of tobacco use (smoking) and other pre-existing lung disease, etc.

Note, cigarette smoke and asbestos together significantly increase your chances of getting lung cancer. Therefore, if you have been exposed to asbestos you should stop smoking. This may be the most important action that you can take to improve your health and decrease your risk of cancer.

Source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, www.atsdr.cdc.gov/asbestos

About Asbestos

Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring fibrous metamorphic minerals: chrysotile, tremolite, actinolite, amosite, crocidolite and anthophyllite. Of the hydrous magnesium silicate variety, asbestos has long been used for a variety of industrial and commercial purposes. Once viewed as a "miracle mineral," asbestos was commonly used as an insulator. Resistant to heat and fire and high in tensile strength, asbestos was used for insulation in buildings, automobile parts and the shipbuilding trades. Miners, harvesting the hazardous mineral on a daily basis, were most at risk of developing mesothelioma because of the amount of direct asbestos exposure they faced.

The health hazards associated with asbestos have been known since the late nineteenth century, though they were ignored for the purpose of business prosperity. A result of increased public awareness and growing health concerns, asbestos was finally regulated under section 112 of the Clean Air Act in 1970.

Types of Asbestos

Chrysotile asbestos - Also called white asbestos, chrysotile asbestos is viewed to be the safest of the six because it is less friable (less brittle / likely to produce airborne microbes) and therefore less likely to be inhaled. More than 95% of asbestos used today is of the chrysotile variety. Some early evidence suggested that chrysotile asbestos did not pose a health hazard even when inhaled, though more recent animal studies have dispelled this myth. Chrysotile is the only type of asbestos classed as a serpentine mineral (fibers making up chrysotile are of a curled variety).

The remaining five types of asbestos are amphibole minerals, meaning that they are made up of straight, needle-like fibers.

  • Tremolite asbestos - Tremolite asbestos is not often used industrially, though it was sometimes found in certain commercial products such as talcum powder.
  • Actinolite asbestos - Like tremolite, actinolite asbestos is not often used industrially. Airborne actinolite asbestos fibers are easily inhaled and severely damaging to the lungs.
  • Amosite asbestos - Also called brown asbestos, amosite asbestos is used for a variety of commercial purposes such as pipe and cement sheet insulation.
  • Crocidolite asbestos - Also called blue asbestos, crocidolite asbestos viewed as the most dangerous of the six.
  • Anthophyllite asbestos - Like tremolite and actinolite, anthophylite asbestos is not often used industrially, though it can occasionally be found in certain types of vermiculite (natural minerals that expand with the application of heat).

Source: Mesothelioma Research Foundation Of America www.mesorfa.org

Asbestos Facts

  • When asbestos fibers are inhaled, most fibers are expelled, but some can become lodged in the lungs and remain there throughout life. Fibers can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation. Enough scarring and inflammation can affect breathing, leading to disease.
  • People are more likely to experience asbestos-related disorders when they are exposed to high concentrations of asbestos, are exposed for longer periods of time, and/or are exposed more often.
  • Inhaling longer, more durable asbestos fibers (such as tremolite and other amphiboles) contributes to the severity of asbestos-related disorders.
  • Exposure to asbestos, including tremolite, can increase the likelihood of lung cancer, mesothelioma, and non-malignant lung conditions such as asbestosis (restricted use of the lungs due to retained asbestos fibers) and changes in the lung lining.
  • Changes in the lining of the lungs (pleura) such as thickening, plaques, calcification, and fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion) may be early signs of asbestos exposure. These changes can affect breathing more than previously thought. Pleural effusion can be an early warning sign for mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs).
  • Most cases of asbestosis or lung cancer in workers occurred 15 years or more after the person was first exposed to asbestos.
  • Most cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed 30 years or more after the first exposure to asbestos.
  • Mesothelioma has been diagnosed in asbestos workers, family members, and residents who live close to asbestos mines.
  • Health effects from asbestos exposure may continue to progress even after exposure is stopped.
  • Smoking or cigarette smoke, together with exposure to asbestos, greatly increases the likelihood of lung cancer.

Source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, www.atsdr.cdc.gov/asbestos

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Mesothelioma Symptoms

The most common Mesothelioma symptoms are the following:

Recent onset of shortness of breath (31%)
Recent increase in shortness of breath (30%)
Chest pain (43%)
 
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