Q: What exactly is asbestos?
A: Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral mined across the globe. It was once lauded for its versatility, tensile strength and heat resistance. It could be mixed with virtually everything, making it invaluable to the commercial and home construction industries. It was once was used in an estimated 3,000 different products in the U.S. Unfortunately, it also is toxic.
Q: Isn’t asbestos banned in the U.S.?
A: Almost 60 countries banned asbestos, but the U.S. has not. The last asbestos mine in the country closed in 2002. The use of asbestos has dropped significantly – and its use is restricted today – but an estimated 300 tons of asbestos still are imported annually into the U.S. The biggest threat today is in older products.
Q: Where is it being used today?
A: Asbestos use today mostly involves the chloralkali industry, which uses it in the processing of chlorine and caustic soda. Asbestos also is still used in some roofing materials and industrial machinery. The real danger now involves asbestos that was used 30-60 years ago in all sorts of products that people come in contact with today.
Q: What kind of health problems does asbestos cause?
A: Asbestos exposure can lead to myriad health issues, many of them respiratory. It can lead to asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma cancer, which are all life-threatening conditions.
Q: How does the exposure to asbestos cause those problems?
A: The microscopic asbestos fibers can be unknowingly inhaled or ingested. They become lodged in the thin membrane surrounding the lungs or the abdominal cavity and over time they cause scarring. That scarring can lead to big problems, including cancer.
Q: Who is most at risk today?
A: Asbestos-related disease still stems mostly from occupational exposure. Decades ago, most at risk were those who worked in manufacturing and in factories where asbestos products were produced. Today, the risk involves those working with older asbestos products that have aged and become more brittle. Anyone remodeling, renovating or demolishing an older structure should be especially careful. Firemen who are fighting a blaze in an older structure also are at high risk from those toxic microscopic fibers.
Q: How can you protect yourself?
A: Firemen, for example, are expected to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) to guard against exposure. Those in the home remodeling business should be careful and have a licensed inspector determine the amount of asbestos in the area before starting a job. A breathing apparatus would help protect you. Any do-it-yourselfer also should be careful about sanding, scraping or disturbing materials containing asbestos. Asbestos is relatively safe if left alone and undisturbed.
Q: If you are exposed to asbestos, what are the chances of getting mesothelioma cancer or lung cancer?
A: Only a small number of people will have those problems stemming from asbestos exposure. Millions of people in the U.S. every year are exposed to asbestos, but only an estimated 3,000 annually are diagnosed with mesothelioma. Maybe twice as many will develop asbestos-related lung cancer. The odds are against coming down with a life-threatening problem unless you’re talking about long-term occupational exposure where you were breathing asbestos dust every day. However if you think you may have been exposed, it is best to seek mesothelioma treatment options.
Q: If I believe I was exposed, how long would it take to see a health-related problem?
A: The latency period between first exposure and diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer can be anywhere from 20-50 years. It’s why it usually is diagnosed in those over 60 years old.
Q: What are the early symptoms of asbestosis or mesothelioma cancer?
A: The symptoms often mirror those of less-serious problems and that’s why it often is diagnosed late and after the disease has metastasized. A persistent dry cough, shortness of breath and pain in the chest or abdomen can be symptoms of mesothelioma. If you have any of those symptoms, see a doctor and ask for a chest X-ray or a CT scan to give you a closer look.
Tim Povtak is a content writer for The Mesothelioma Center and Asbestos.com, an informational source for mesothelioma patients and families.