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Asbestos – if only we knew then what we know now

June 2011

AsbestosIt is a sad fact that when most of us were being brought up, asbestos was still being hailed as a wonder material. Not surprising really; after all it is light, very strong, it does not burn, is resistant to chemicals and it does not conduct heat or electricity.

You can easily see how, in the 1950s, 60s and beyond it was thought to be the best possible material for many uses, including in heat and electrical insulation products and in building materials, especially in cement boards, flooring and roofing materials. It is not so commonly known that asbestos was also used in a wide range of other products, such as in plastics for toilet cisterns, in paints and textiles and even in some mattresses and paper.

This natural fibre was mined in various parts of the world, especially in South Africa and Canada, and was easily obtained and affordable. No wonder it had wide usage.
Problems from the material were in fact noticed over a century ago - the first documented death related to asbestos was in 1906 and the first diagnosis of asbestosis in the UK was made in 1924.

But the scale of the problem was not recognised and it was only in the 1970s that the real dangers of asbestos were recognised and its use was phased out. Mining ceased in 1983 and the EU has now banned all use of asbestos.

But for many people this action was all too late. The effects of breathing in the small fibres from asbestos may not become apparent for many years, sometimes twenty, thirty or more years after exposure to asbestos, and today there are still some people at risk from developing problems from their exposure to asbestos fibres years ago.

These fibres can be deadly and people who worked with asbestos, cutting and handling the material and thereby helping to spread the fibres into the air, are the most at risk. The fibres can lodge in the lungs after being inhaled, causing the lungs to shrink resulting in breathlessness. Some asbestos fibres that are inhaled into the lungs work their way down to the pleura (a two-layered membrane which surrounds the lungs and lines the inside of the rib cage) and this can cause fibrosis to develop there. Asbestos (and other similar fibres) are the only known causes of mesothelioma, a cancer affecting the lining of the lung cavity, and exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer.

One aspect that isn’t so well known is that asbestos exposure coupled with smoking work together to produce a hugely increased risk of lung cancer.

Some asbestos is far less dangerous than others. The most dangerous is blue asbestos, or crocidolite, and brown asbestos, or amosite; these are the two types that have generally been used in insulation. The least hazardous type is chrysotile (white asbestos) which is commonly found in composite and cement materials.

Initially, the symptoms of asbestosis are very mild, with perhaps just some shortness of breath. Other symptoms can include a persistent dry cough, chronic fatigue, chest pains and sometimes thickening in the ends of the fingers. As the disease progresses other symptoms may occur, for instance as the scar tissue builds up it can restrict the expansion of the lungs causing high blood pressure leading in turn to heart problems.

There is no cure for asbestosis but a CT scan will indicate the severity of the problem and in some cases portions of badly scarred tissue can be removed surgically. There are also medications to improve lung function.

Along with asbestosis, mesothelioma, a cancer of the mesothelial cells that affects the lining of the lungs and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract, is closely related to asbestos. The symptoms here are generally non-specific and initially can resemble the signs of flu, bronchitis or heart disease. But breathing difficulties are also usually experienced and it is this that is often picked up first by doctors to indicate mesothelioma.

Asbestos lung cancer usually starts in the lining of the bronchi, the tubes from the trachea and windpipe. Lung cancer usually develops slowly and early stage asbestos lung cancer may have minimal symptoms.

Treatments for both mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer, as with any cancer, vary tremendously according to the patient .


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