Asbestos exposure has been the root of a major, global health crisis, as the number one cause of malignant mesothelioma and other cancers. In the U.S. alone, more than 10,000 cases of asbestos-related diseases are presented annually. Thousands more are diagnosed around the world.
While mesothelioma and other illnesses linked to asbestos are rare overall, the proportion of people who have experienced exposure is a telling figure. Up to 80% of all patients diagnosed with mesothelioma have had contact with asbestos—usually on a regular and ongoing basis, such as in an occupational setting.
The EPA banned the use of asbestos in 1989 but later reversed that action. Though no longer common, asbestos is sill in very limited use today, in addition to being found routinely in older structures and products. Asbestos exposure has been reduced tremendously since the later part of the 20th century, when it became a widely recognized health hazard.
Five basic questions about asbestos are:
1. What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, silicate mineral that is harvested from rocks and soil and used to make a variety of everyday consumer goods. Manufacturers of building materials—particularly insulation—commended asbestos for its strength and ability to withstand high temperature and flames. Because of those properties, asbestos fibers were once used to construct everything from cement to roofing tiles, not to mention auto parts and even cosmetics.
2. Where would I have come into contact with asbestos?
Most people suffering from asbestos-related diseases were at one time employed in industries that involved frequent contact with asbestos. Some examples include mechanics, construction workers and contractors, firefighters and shipmen.
However, others have experienced asbestos exposure while living in homes that were constructed with large amounts of asbestos. Even the families of workers on asbestos-heavy jobsites came into contact with it after it was carried into their homes via clothing and skin.
3. Why is asbestos harmful?
Asbestos is a carcinogen or toxic substance known to cause cancer. It enters the body when a material is broken up, which releases asbestos fibers into the environment. People in close proximity then inhale or ingest those particles, which remain in their affected organs indefinitely. When enough irritation occurs, illness develops.
4. How can I protect myself from asbestos?
Fortunately, excessive asbestos exposure today is rare and can generally be avoided by taking simple precautions. First, be wary of purchasing or renting a home that contains materials made from asbestos. If you must live or work around an asbestos-based material, do not disturb it or take any action that may cause it to disintegrate. In the event that asbestos is to be demolished, this should be handled by a trained asbestos remover.
5. What can I do if I have gotten sick after being exposed to asbestos?
Should you begin to experience any mesothelioma symptoms after having been knowingly exposed to asbestos, see a doctor immediately to rule out cancer or other serious illness.