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 Asbestos and mesothelioma                                                July 2010  

Asbestos and mesothelioma

AsbestosAsbestos is one of those things that hit the news in a big way and then virtually disappeared from the media. Yet asbestos is still present in a large number of buildings including hospitals and houses, usually in walls and ceilings, and many people are still very worried when they learn they are living close to asbestos.

Things have moved on from the initial panic. It is known now that providing asbestos is well maintained and even better, covered by an impermeable layer of paint or other surface, it is not releasing dust and therefore is no hazard to health.

There are also three different types of asbestos and it is the blue asbestos, or crocidolite, that can be the most dangerous. One step down is brown asbestos, or amosite, and then at the bottom of the danger list is chrysotile, or white asbestos.

Asbestos is actually a natural product mined mainly in South Africa and Canada and then processed for different uses. Its resistance to heat made it really popular for a number of industrial uses such as brake linings as well as domestic use such as insulation.

While asbestos sits untouched it is relatively safe, it is the inhalation of loose asbestos fibres that causes problems and this usually occurs only when asbestos is being cut or moved. Our age group is particularly at risk because in the 1960s the production and use of all forms of asbestos was popular and continuing to grow. While the highest risk is for people who have actually come into contact with or worked with asbestos, people who have washed workers’ overalls, or even people who worked near asbestos factories as a child, can all be at risk.

The problems are caused when one breathes in the asbestos fibres. The fibres can lodge in the lungs after being inhaled from the air and this can cause a number of diseases. In the lungs, it causes scarring which leads to breathlessness. It can cause pleural thickening. The pleura is a two-layered membrane which surrounds the lungs and lines the inside of the rib cage.

Asbestos inhalation can also lead to mesothelioma, a malignant tumour which begins in the pleura or in the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity. This can be a difficult disease to diagnose, the most common symptoms are breathlessness and chest pain but it has sometimes being diagnosed in patients who visited their doctors for other reasons such as loss of appetite, night sweats and swelling in the abdomen.

If there is suspicion that you might be suffering from mesotheliomathere are various tests, including taking fluid and tissue samples, that can be undertaken to confirm the disease.

Mesothelioma does not usually spread around the body like other cancers often do, but at the moment there is no definite cure. Treatment is based on active symptom control to alleviate problems such as the build up of fluid in your chest.

There is a great deal of information available now on the problems caused by asbestos and the British Lung Foundation ( has published some information booklets.


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