Health Effects Associated with Asbestos Exposure

Sep 27, 2016

What are the health problems associated with asbestos exposure? In this blog post I will discuss the common routes of exposure for asbestos and its health effects related to exposure.

The term asbestos refers to a group of six naturally occurring fibrous silicate minerals which often have a length-width ratio of roughly 1:20. These minerals were widely coveted because of their fire-resistance, tensile strength, and durability. Many dubbed asbestos the “miracle mineral” because of its versatile uses in a wide variety of industries. However, its health effects associated with exposure have been documented since antiquity.

The Roman philosopher, Pliny the Elder, documented in his writings in the 1st century that the workers in the asbestos mines often died faster than the rest of the population from a lung sickness. In the early 1900s, researchers worldwide began correlating workers exposed to asbestos to lung disease related deaths. These discoveries eventually led to the ban of its many uses in 1977 in the United States and the classification of it as a carcinogen.

The most common route for asbestos exposure is from inhalation. Ingestion is another route of exposure that is far less prevalent than inhalation. Skin contact with asbestos has been not known to cause any serious health effects. The most common activity that causes asbestos exposure is disturbing asbestos-containing materials during renovation activities. Breaking or disturbing these materials may release asbestos fibrils in the surrounding air. Once inhaled the asbestos fibers enter the lungs undetected because of its microscopic size and are deposited into the lungs over time. The larger the amount and duration of deposition of fibers into the lungs will increase the likelihood of asbestos related diseases to occur.

Asbestos related diseases do not generally occur directly after exposure. In fact many asbestos related diseases have a long latency period, which is generally 10-50 years after exposure. The three most common asbestos exposure related diseases are mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. Mesothelioma is an asbestos-related cancer that forms in the lining of the lungs and abdomen and usually but not always attributed to amphibole asbestos minerals (Amosite & Crocidolite). There is no current cure for mesothelioma.

Individuals exposed to asbestos are far more likely to develop lung cancer than those who aren’t. People who smoke and are exposed to asbestos have an even higher likelihood of developing lung cancer because the lungs are more vulnerable to asbestos fibers. This is known as the synergistic effect in which two factors produce a greater effect than the sum of its components. Asbestos is primary cause of mesothelioma, whereas there are many causes of lung cancer.

Asbestosis is a pulmonary fibrosis of the lungs that results from asbestos fibers scarring lung tissue. People with asbestosis have a higher likelihood of developing mesothelioma or lung cancer.

Currently there is no safe threshold for asbestos exposure. OSHA and the EPA have accepted guidelines for exposure limits, however these should not be interpreted as safe levels. All carcinogens should be kept at the lowest possible concentration. If you plan to disturb or remove materials that may contain asbestos, I recommend you hire a licensed asbestos inspector (such as our company, Indoor Science) to inspect and collect the material before starting renovation activities.