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What can happen if I am exposed to asbestos fibres

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral compound made up of soft and flexible fibres that are resistant to corrosion, electricity, and heat. Asbestos is a naturally occurring effective insulator. It can be used in cloth, paper, cement, plastic, and other materials to make them stronger. Most of the world's asbestos is imported from Russia, China, and Kazakhstan, but it was once mined in North America.

High-Risk Asbestos Occupations

The highest risk of asbestos exposure can be seen in those working in construction, in the U.S. Military, mining, firefighting, shipbuilding, electricity generation, and heavy industry. The U.S. Military used asbestos between the 1930s and 1970s, especially on Navy vessels. Even living in the vicinity of a contaminated mine or a facility that processes asbestos can cause secondhand exposure. The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry shows that between 1940 and 1979 27 million workers were exposed to asbestos. Regulations have been put in place to reduce the risk of exposure but these high-risk occupations still hold a degree of possible exposure.

Asbestos Products

Exposure to asbestos today most commonly comes from renovation or demolition work on buildings old enough to contain asbestos-based products. Building materials that once contained asbestos include tiles, cement, roofing felt, adhesives, sealants and coatings, and reinforced plastics. Manufacturers used asbestos insulation in steam engines and locomotives. It was also put in products such as automotive brake pads, boilers, and gaskets. These items have been discontinued. Manufacturers that still have products containing asbestos must get government approval to distribute them. Asbestos cannot be identified through sight or smell. The only way to verify its presence is through lab testing or by an accredited inspector.

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos-related diseases kill thousands of people every year. It is wise to be alert to the dangers that can come with exposure, but it is also important to know the different degrees of exposure. Exposure limited to less than a few days is considered short-term exposure. Usually, any health risk is low from short-term exposure. Random occurrences such as a do-it-yourself project are not a major risk. However, asbestos exposure builds upon itself, so multiple short occurrences can add up if repeated. If a person is exposed to asbestos for a single occurrence, there a few factors that come into play. If the material was damaged and/or falling apart, or if it was handled in a way to break it apart, and if ventilation was poor, it is likely that asbestos dust was inhaled. In many places, small amounts of asbestos are in the air from ongoing demolition and construction. In nature, it comes from rock formations eroding. This kind of asbestos exposure will not pose any immediate health concerns. The best thing to do after short-term exposure is to learn from mistakes and make a health care provider aware.

In order for asbestos to cause disease, it must be inhaled or swallowed. Diseases usually develop because millions of fibres have accumulated in lung tissue or a membrane lining in the body. There are many factors that come into play to determine if exposure is likely to make someone sick. Higher concentrations of asbestos pose a higher risk. The highest exposure is visible when the air is cloudy with fibres. Long-term exposure is a major risk factor. Long-term exposure comes with work in an occupation that is high risk or living in an area that has been contaminated for long periods of time. The type of asbestos can impact the severity of any resulting illness. Common white asbestos is already known to be dangerous. There are other types of asbestos that could be even worse. A history of smoking has been shown to multiply the risk of lung cancer.

Asbestos-related diseases take time to appear. Exposure has been linked to many illnesses. Asbestosis is a lung disease in which asbestos fibres have created scarring resulting in shortness of breath. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease has been linked to asbestos exposure. This disease usually refers to bronchitis and emphysema, symptoms worsening over time. Mesothelioma is a type of lung cancer that has been linked almost exclusively to asbestos exposure.

How to protect yourself from asbestos exposure

Awareness of products that used to be manufactured with asbestos can be the first step to protecting against exposure, and recognize if they may be in your area. If work is being done on an older building, materials can be tested for asbestos. If the presence of asbestos can be confirmed, rely on professionals to have it removed.

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