Since the 1970s, the dangers of asbestos have been widely acknowledged and increasingly researched. For years prior, asbestos was used extensively in construction, shipbuilding, factories, and power stations. Millions of people have been exposed to the material, whether in the workplace or at home. This has triggered a devastating health crisis, costly to individuals and former employers alike.
Asbestos: A brief history
Asbestos has been mined and utilized by humans for thousands of years. It is a naturally-occuring silicate material comprised of long, thin fibers, which break down further into microscopic particles. The composition of asbestos makes it effective in insulation, soundproofing, as well as heat and fire resistance.
In the 19th century, thanks to its usefulness in the emerging shipbuilding industry, large-scale mining and production of asbestos products began. Over time, asbestos-containing materials were rolled out for use in factories, power stations, and in the automotive industry. In the home, asbestos was contained within clothes irons, hairdryers, toasters, and even artificial snow.
Concerns were raised from the beginning of the 20th century regarding the potential health hazards associated with the use of asbestos. These were not given significant consideration until the 1970s, when research showed links between occupational exposure to asbestos and chronic lung diseases. Two such diseases have been shown to originate directly from inadvertent inhalation of asbestos fibers; asbestosis and mesothelioma.
Asbestosis is a chronic and incurable disease of lung tissue, caused by exposure to asbestos; the material causes lungs to become irritated, inflamed, and scarred. Patients diagnosed with asbestosis may develop any or all of the following symptoms:
- Persistent cough
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Shoulder pain
- Swollen fingertips (in advanced cases)
Individuals who have worked with asbestos, or have been in close contact with another person who has (such as a family member or colleague), are at a high risk of developing asbestosis. Any symptoms experienced should be discussed with a physician as soon as possible. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for asbestosis, and treatment is limited to symptom management and oxygen therapy.
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects the outer lining of organs; usually the lungs, but the disease can also strike the stomach or heart. The majority of mesothelioma cases are caused by irritation and scarring as a result of inhaling asbestos. In response, the outer lining of the lungs (or any other affected organ) can develop mutations, which in turn may become cancerous cells or tumors. Asbestosis can also progress to mesothelioma.
Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss are the common symptoms of mesothelioma, wherever the disease is located. When the lungs are affected, the specific symptoms are:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent coughing
- Fever, particularly at night
Likewise, disease of the stomach may cause:
- Stomach pain and/or swelling
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
Unfortunately, most mesothelioma cases are diagnosed at a late stage, and curative measures are generally not possible. The majority of patients opt for palliative treatments instead.
Guidance and support
Approximately 10,000 new cases of asbestosis are reported every year, as well as 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma. It can be difficult to know where to turn after diagnoses. Fortunately, there are a wealth of organizations that can guide you through the next steps; your physician will be able to advise which groups are best for patients living with asbestosis. If you’re looking for mesothelioma information, contact a specialized support service such Mesothelioma Help.