Pollution and Wastes

Why is exposure to asbestos a health hazard?

Asbestos fibers were used in building materials between 1900 and the early 1970s as insulation for walls and pipes, as fireproofing for walls and fireplaces, in soundproofing and acoustic ceiling tiles, as a strengthener for vinyl flooring and joint compounds, and as a paint texturizer. Asbestos poses a health hazard only if the tiny fibers are released into the air, but this can happen with any normal fraying or cracking. Asbestos removal aggravates this normal process and multiplies the danger level—it should only be handled by a contractor trained in handling asbestos. Once released, the particles can hang suspended in the air for more than 20 hours.

Exposure to asbestos has long been known to cause asbestosis. This is a chronic, restrictive lung disease caused by the inhalation of tiny mineral asbestos fibers that scar lung tissues. Asbestos has also been linked with cancers of the larynx, pharynx, oral cavity, pancreas, kidneys, ovaries, and gastrointestinal tract. The American Lung Association reports that prolonged exposure doubles the likelihood that a smoker will develop lung cancer. It takes cancer 15 to 30 years to develop from asbestos. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer affecting the surface lining of the pleura (lung) or peritoneum (abdomen), which generally spreads rapidly over large surfaces of either the thoracic or abdominal cavities. Current treatment methods include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy although mesothelioma continues to be difficult to control.


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