Asbestos symptoms and related diseases usually don't develop until years, often decades, after exposure. Due to this delay, it is often difficult to pinpoint when the exposure happened. Or even know when that troublesome cough is actually something much more sinister.
Asbestos is currently the cause of around 5000 deaths annually, a figure that continues to rise.
Asbestos was a popular building product in the UK during the 50s - 70s. It wasn't fully banned until 1999. So many building we live and work in contain asbestos. In the walls, roofs, guttering, insulation, pipe lagging, doors, panels, cladding... asbestos could be anywhere and everywhere.
If these asbestos materials are disturbed, tiny asbestos fibres that are invisible to the eye are released which can easily be inhaled and enter the lungs. These fibres are sharp and strong. They become hooked inside the lungs and the human body cannot break them down. These asbestos fibres can be debilitating, and can often have fatal consequences.
All types of asbestos are classed as carcinogens. A carcinogen is any substance that is directly involved in causing cancer. Asbestos is well known to be hazardous, and a cancer causing material. There are a number of asbestos-related diseases that can develop following exposure. These mostly target the lungs.
There are four lung diseases that are (or can be) caused by asbestos exposure.
Asbestos doesn't just cause lung diseases and respiratory problems (although that is the biggest risk). If swallowed, asbestos can also cause cancer in the bowels. Asbestos fibres can irritate the eyes, becoming lodged in the soft tissues.
However, inhalation of asbestos fibres and lung diseases are the biggest risk. As we have already mentioned, asbestos is responsible for a staggering 5,000 deaths in the UK each year.
These deaths are mostly caused by lung cancer and mesothelioma. A few are also caused by asbestosis. Asbestosis can also develop into lung cancer and mesothelioma at later stages.
It all starts with pleural plaques. Well, not necessarily, but this is often one of the first signs of trouble. This thickening in the lungs lining is a sign that asbestos fibres have become lodged and indicates that more serious asbestos-related disease may develop.
As the name suggests, this lung disease is caused by asbestos. This is a scaring of the lungs caused by asbestos fibres. Like pleural plaques, it's a sign that more serious disease may develop in the future. Not that it is not serious in itself. This lung disease will leave you short of breath, very tired, wheezy and with a nasty cough. There is no cure for asbestosis.
Around 2,500 people die of asbestos-related lung cancer each year, according to HSE statistics. Cancer develops because of the damage caused by asbestos fibres to the cells of the lungs, and an inflammatory reaction of the body to that damage.
Probably the most famous asbestos disease, and the one you will hear about most often - is mesothelioma. Again, this disease is asbestos specific. It is a type of cancer that develops in the lining of the surface of the lungs. Asbestos fibres are so sharp and small, they can sink deep into lung tissue. Mesothelioma is fatal, and currently responsible for around 2,500 deaths each year in the UK.
2,595 mesothelioma deaths in 2016, with a similar number of lung cancer deaths linked to past exposures to asbestos.
There is no cure for any of the asbestos-related diseases we have discussed. That's why preventing asbestos exposure is so important.
You won't get these symptoms right away after asbestos exposure. Asbestos-related diseases take years, even decades to develop. Usually, the more asbestos you are exposed to, the more at risk you are, and the quicker the disease develops.
Those most at risk will have been regularly exposed to asbestos as part of their job. For example plumbers and electricians who often disturb existing building materials. But you can develop asbestos-related disease from a single exposure, especially if you were exposed to a high level of asbestos fibres.
Smokers are also at increased risk. Smoking desensitises the lungs to smoke and particles, and the immune system reduces the white blood cells sent to clean up the lungs.
While the effects of exposure may develop decades after the initial exposure, they can progress rapidly once they begin to appear.
Avoiding asbestos exposure is the only way to reduce the risks, and this is especially important for those who carry out construction or maintenance work in buildings where asbestos is often present and at risk of being disturbed.
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