The Facts About Asbestos Exposure

Important: This article is not medical or legal advice and should not be regarded as such. Asbestos, once widely used in construction and manufacturing industries for its heat resistance and durability, is now recognized as a serious health hazard. Exposure to asbestos fibres can lead to various debilitating and often
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Written by Tom Yates . Edited 21st March 2024

Fact Checked by William Wright, NEBOSH


Important: This article is not medical or legal advice and should not be regarded as such.

Asbestos, once widely used in construction and manufacturing industries for its heat resistance and durability, is now recognized as a serious health hazard. Exposure to asbestos fibres can lead to various debilitating and often fatal diseases. Understanding the risks associated with asbestos exposure is crucial for protecting public health and safety.

What is Asbestos Exposure 

Asbestos exposure occurs when individuals inhale or ingest asbestos fibres present in the air. These microscopic fibres, when released into the environment, can remain airborne for extended periods, posing a risk to anyone nearby. Asbestos exposure commonly occurs in workplaces with asbestos-containing materials (ACM), but it can also happen during renovations or demolitions of older buildings. 

Who Is at Risk of Asbestos Exposure? 

Occupational groups with a high risk of asbestos exposure include construction workers, miners, insulation installers, and firefighters. Additionally, individuals residing or working in buildings constructed before the 1980s may encounter asbestos-containing materials, such as insulation, ceiling tiles, and roofing materials. A comprehensive list of those at risk to asbestos exposure include:

  • Miners
  • Millers
  • Boilermakers
  • Auto Mechanics
  • Electricians
  • Firefighters
  • Plumbers
  • Construction Workers
  • Shipyard Workers
  • Industrial Workers
  • Power Plant Workers

There is also a risk of secondary exposure for friends and family living with someone who has been exposed to asbestos fibres.

In the UK, Asbestos was banned in late 1999 as per The Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999 Act. This means that the chance of exposure for workers after the year 2000 decreases. However, many old building still have ACM so any time and old property built before the year 2000 is worked on, there could be a risk of asbestos exposure which is why following proper control procedures is vital.

Diseases Caused by Exposure to Asbestos

Extensive scientific studies have been undertaken relating to asbestos exposure and it’s negative side effects. It has been scientifically proven that asbestos exposure can cause both cancerous and noncancerous diseases including Mesothelioma, Lung Cancer, Asbestosis, and Pleural Disease.

Mesothelioma 

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or heart. It is primarily caused by inhaling asbestos fibres, with symptoms often not appearing until decades after exposure.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma include chest pains, shortness of breath, fatigue, a persistent cough, loss of appetite, and swollen fingertips. Diagnosis typically includes chest and/or stomach X-rays, CT scans, and potentially a thoracoscopy or laparoscopy to show how far the Mesothelioma has progressed. 

The outlook for Mesothelioma patients is poor as there is no cure. Typically, only palliative care is given to improve your quality of life and make you feel as comfortable as possible such as immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.

Lung Cancer

Exposure to asbestos significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer, particularly in smokers. The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure substantially heightens the likelihood of lung cancer. There are typically two types of lung cancer that result from asbestos exposure – SCLS and NSCLC.

Small Cell Lung Cancer is a result of smaller cancerous cells that usually grow your air passages. It spreads faster but responds better to chemotherapy and is responsible for only 20-25% of asbestos lung cancer cases. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer is a result of larger cell growth and is responsible for 80-85% of asbestos lung cancer cases.

The problem with lung cancer from asbestos exposure is the latency period. It’s not uncommon for 10 years to pass between the initial asbestos exposure and a lung cancer diagnosis. The later the diagnosis is made, the lower the percentage of successful treatment becomes.

Ovarian Cancer

Recent studies suggest a potential link between asbestos exposure and an increased risk of ovarian cancer, though the exact mechanism remains under investigation. Ovarian cancer is a result of cancerous cell growth in the ovaries that affects women – the cells can grow in both ovaries, and also spread to the fallopian tubes. 

Ovarian cancer from asbestos exposure is usually the result of secondary exposure from living with an asbestos worker. However, evidence has also shown that contaminated talcum powder has also previously led to ovarian cancer.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer include bloating, pelvic and abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and increased need to urinate, back pain, and digestive problems. Diagnosis typically involves a pelvic examination with a gynaecologist followed by pelvic scanning such as a CT scan, MRI, or ultrasound.

Treatment involves removal of the ovaries, uterus, and fallopian tubes which depending on what is removed, can prevent the patient from getting pregnant. Survival rates decrease depending on how far the cancer has spread in the reproductive organs.

Laryngeal Cancer

Inhaling asbestos fibres can also contribute to the development of laryngeal cancer, affecting the voice box and surrounding tissues. This is one of the rarer types of cancer associated with asbestos exposure but some studies show that exposure can increase the risk of laryngeal cancer by up to 40%.

This type of cancer is more common in men and people over the age of 60. Symptoms include pain when swallowing, lumps in your neck, a persistent cough, persistent breathlessness, a persistent sore throat and/or earache.

If diagnosed at an early stage, the outlook for laryngeal cancer improves. Treatments usually include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery to remove part or all of the larynx. Complete removal of the larynx means that you will not be able to speak or breath in a standard manner, but instead via a stoma.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a chronic lung condition caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos fibres. It leads to scarring of lung tissue, resulting in breathing difficulties and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections.

Symptoms of asbestosis include a persistent cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, chest or shoulder pains, and swollen fingertips (in more advanced cases). The difficulty with asbestosis is that it can take 20-30 years to show symptoms after exposure and oftentimes there may be no symptoms.

Asbestosis has no cure although it is usually not terminal nor fatal – only in severe cases. Treatments can be given to help improve breathing quality including oxygen therapy, and the use of an inhaler. 

Pleural Disease

These conditions are all associated with asbestos exposure and involve inflammation, scarring, and fluid buildup in the membranes surrounding the lungs. Individual types of pleural disease include: 

  • Pleural Plaques
  • Pleural Effusions
  • Pleuritis
  • Diffuse Pleural Thickening
  • Atelectasis

These directly affect the pleura which is a membrane that lines your chest cavity and covers your lungs. Pleural disease may also be an effect of other asbestos-related conditions such as lung cancer but it can be a standalone issue too.

Treatments vary depending on the severity of the issue, other complications, and which part of the pleura is affected. A Bullectomy (removal of air pockets in the lungs), chemotherapy, tumour removal, pleurodesis (excess fluid drainage), and radiotherapy are all common treatments for the different pleural complications.

How to Limit Exposure to Asbestos 

Preventing asbestos exposure involves identifying and safely managing asbestos-containing materials. Employers should provide adequate training and personal protective equipment to workers who may encounter asbestos during their duties.

Additionally, individuals undertaking renovations or demolitions should hire qualified professionals to assess and handle asbestos-containing materials safely. The HSE has a set of well-developed guidelines companies can adhere to, to protect their workforce and ensure the risk of asbestos exposure is minimised.

Stay Informed About Asbestos Exposure to Mitigate the Associated Risks 

Understanding the facts about asbestos exposure is essential for protecting public health and reducing the incidence of asbestos-related diseases. By raising awareness, implementing preventive measures, and promoting safe handling practices, we can mitigate the risks associated with asbestos exposure and safeguard the well-being of workers and communities alike.

FAQs 

What does asbestos exposure do to you?

Asbestos exposure can cause a range of serious health conditions, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. These diseases often have long latency periods, with symptoms appearing years or even decades after exposure. 

How much exposure to asbestos does it take to get cancer?

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Even brief or minimal exposure to asbestos fibres can increase the risk of developing asbestos-related diseases, particularly if the exposure occurs regularly over time.

What is the biggest killer of asbestos? 

Mesothelioma is often considered the most lethal asbestos-related disease, as it has a poor prognosis and limited treatment options. However, lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure is more prevalent and accounts for a significant number of asbestos-related deaths.

What are the odds of dying from asbestos?

The risk of dying from asbestos-related diseases varies depending on factors such as the duration and intensity of exposure, individual susceptibility, and whether preventive measures were taken. However, asbestos exposure significantly increases the likelihood of developing life-threatening conditions, underscoring the importance of prevention and early detection.

Full PPE Included

Full Asbestos Testing Kit

Regular price From $77.54
Regular price Sale price From $77.54
incl VAT

Test for asbestos yourself using one of our kits

  • Results within 24hrs
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