When a person breathes asbestos, fibers can become lodged in the lungs. Once there, they can cause scarring. Asbestos fibers can also cause mesothelioma and lung cancer. The knowledge that asbestos can cause these fatal diseases has been known since the 1920's.
The specific disease types associated with asbestos exposure include:
Mesothelioma (cancer of the mesothelium) is a disease in which cells of the mesothelium become abnormal and divide without control or order. They can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. Cancer cells can also metastasize (spread) from their original site to other parts of the body. Most cases of mesothelioma begin in the pleura or peritoneum.
Asbestos can scar the lung and the lining of the lung. This scarring is known as asbestosis or interstitial fibrosis. If enough scarring occurs, it can impair the elasticity of the lungs and hamper their ability to exchange gases. As a result, there is inadequate oxygen intake to the blood. This impairment leads to shortness of breath. Over time, the breathing capacity can diminish and in some cases, become fatal.
Asbestosis, like other asbestos diseases, is a disease of latency -- it takes 10 to 40 years after exposure to asbestos for a person to become sick.
There is no known cure for asbestosis.
Asbestos also causes lung cancer. A person who does not smoke can get lung cancer from being to exposed to asbestos. If you smoked in the past or are presently smoking, and have been diagnosed with lung cancer, asbestos may also be a cause of your cancer. For smokers, asbestos and tobacco act together, greatly increasing the risk of lung cancer. The combination of smoking and asbestos can increase the risk of developing lung cancer.
Lung cancer, depending on its severity and the medical history of the individual, may be treated.
For information on cancer treatment centers, click here.
Asbestos has also been associated with many other cancers, including cancers of the throat and stomach areas.
Unfortunately, with over 5,000 products containing asbestos, exposure is varied and difficult to pin-point. Even small amounts of asbestos and infrequent exposure can cause injuries. The dangers of asbestos in the home and the risks of developing mesothelioma generally occur due to renovation or repair work in the home (first hand exposure) or contact with individuals working with asbestos (second hand exposure).
Asbestos fibers are so toxic, that industrial and trade worker’s families may be exposed to mesothelioma through particles that cling to the worker’s clothing, shoes, skin and hair. This type of “second-hand” exposure to asbestos is known as
Asbestos exposure in the home could have occurred when renovation or repair work was performed. The majority of building products manufactured today do not contain asbestos, however those frequently used prior to 1970 do carry exposure risks. Products such as joint compounds, wallboards, gaskets, fireproofing, pipe covering, cements, floor tiles, ceiling tiles and boiler insulation often contained asbestos. If these products were mixed, grinded, cut, sawed, sprayed, removed or otherwise manipulated, banged or damaged, they could have released significant asbestos fibers into your home. The inhalation of these airborne fibers can create the risk of developing mesothelioma, even 15-30 years later.
There have been reported cases of family members developing mesothelioma due to contact with asbestos fibers carried home from at-risk work environments. Workers handling asbestos today must change clothes prior to leaving the workplace, but this was not always the case. Asbestos dust on boots and clothing carried the fibers home, exposing wives and children to asbestos. While mesothelioma is most often diagnosed in those with first hand exposure, there have been reported incidents where family members with second hand asbestos exposure have developed mesothelioma.
The primary reason that asbestos was used in building products was as a binder or filler material. It was cheap and easily available. It is stringy and resilient, and thus made a good binder. Its resilience also reduced the breakage of the products between the factory and the worksite. In pipe covering and other materials, asbestos created air pockets which provided heat resistance.
Asbestos was marketed for its "fire resistant" qualities. In reality, at approximately 1200 degrees, asbestos transforms into an inert mineral. Other materials were available, even in the 1930's and thereafter, that could have been used (and, in fact, were used) as substitutes for asbestos without any sacrifice in product integrity or heat resistance. The asbestos industry peddled asbestos as a "magic mineral," creating a demand for the material, without advising of the dangers of asbestos. As a result, thousands of American workers were injured and killed. It was unnecessary and could have been avoided.
The companies that manufactured, sold and installed asbestos products had extensive knowledge of the deadly hazards of asbestos as early as 1920. Yet, these corporations waited decades to provide warnings to workers and to the general public. In some cases, warnings were never provided.
In addition to this actual knowledge on the part of asbestos corporations, the evidence available in medical books and journals revealed the dangers of asbestos exposure long before millions of American workers were exposed.
Late 1800's: The first reports of lung disease in people working in asbestos factories.
1924: British medical journal publishes first widely available article describing death of a 33-year old woman who worked in an asbestos textile plant.
1927: A pathologist issues a report describing asbestosis as a disease that involves the scarring of the lungs and shortness of breath. The report indicates that asbestosis could be fatal.
1928: Journal of the American Medical Association publishes editorial called "Pulmonary Asbestosis." Articles and case reports describing incidence of asbestosis are published in the
1930: Dr. Merewether, a famous researcher, publishes first clinical examination of hundreds of workers in the asbestos industry. He found that one out of four workers was suffering from asbestosis. Dr. Merewether further concluded:
- That asbestosis was a disease of latency, i.e. that workers exposed to asbestos wouldn't show signs of injury for many years;
- That asbestos dust had to be controlled through ventilation and the use of respirators.
- That workers exposed to asbestos should be informed and warned in order to assure a "sane appreciation of the risk."
- That the finished products created dust that should be controlled and minimized.
Dr. Merewether's medical description of asbestos disease mirrors exactly the description of the disease today. His recommendations, if implemented by the asbestos industry, would have saved tens of thousands of lives and injuries to American workers.
1930s: Reports demonstrated that asbestosis was occurring in workers with as little as nine months of exposure.
1933: First American case report of asbestosis in an insulation worker.
1934: Researchers report cases of asbestosis and lung cancer in an asbestos factory. Many of the workers had less than six months of exposure to asbestos. Reports were also published of asbestosis from workplace exposure to products, including boiler workers, custodians and insulators.
1942: Researchers report that lung cancer in building trades workers is likely caused by asbestos. Dr. Heuper, a noted occupational physician and the first chief of the environmental cancer section of the National Cancer Institute, suggests that asbestos causes Asbestosis as well as cancer in the manufacturing process as well as through finished building products such as insulation and packing materials. In 1949, Dr. Heuper warns that asbestos was a cancer risk to the general population. By this time there were over 200 references in the widely available literature regarding asbestos and disease.1943: First case of a mesothelioma-like tumor reported.
1947: Dr. Merewether finds that 13% of asbestosis cases also had cancer of the lungs or pleura.
1949: Encyclopedia Brittanica lists asbestos as a recognized cause of occupational and environmental cancer. The Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that asbestos is probably linked to occupational cancer.
1953: Mesothelioma is reported in an asbestos insulator.
1955: A major epidemiological study demonstrates that asbestos workers have a tenfold risk above the general population of contracting lung cancer.
1960: Another epidemiological study confirms reports that exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma. This study also included the children and wives of asbestos workers who contracted mesothelioma.
1964: Dr. Selikoff, a major researcher at
After 1964, the medical literature continued to identify asbestos as a major carcinogen and environmental hazard. Over 200 publications described the hazards of asbestos by the end of the 1960's.
Notwithstanding this knowledge, and the death that resulted from breathing in the dust from these products, the manufacturers and installers of these materials continued to sell and install asbestos products without warning workers, reducing the dust or substituting equally effective materials in place of the asbestos. Tragically, many companies had secured additional knowledge regarding the connection between asbestos and cancer as early as the 1930's. However, these companies altered research reports to hide these findings from the public.