Asbestos (from Greet άσβεστη meaning “unquenchable”) is a natural mineral fiber, best known for its resistance to flame and its ability to be woven into cloth. Because of these properties, it was used to make fireproof stage curtains for theaters, as well as heat-resistant clothing for metal workers and firefighters.
From nuclear submarines to household cleansers
In the past century, asbestos fibers have been used to produce asbestos-reinforced cement products including pipes, sheets, and shingles used in building construction. Asbestos is also used as insulation for rocket engines in space shuttles and as a component in the electrolytic cells that produce oxygen in submerged nuclear submarines. Much of the chlorine used in bleach, cleansers, and disinfectants is produced using asbestos products.
However, the versatility of asbestos is severely compromised by its severe health risks:
- According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 27.5 million people have been exposed to asbestos while on the job in the United States.
- Despite its decline in use since the 1970s, asbestos-related deaths have continued to persist, with 2,156 reported deaths due to mesothelioma and 96 deaths due to asbestosis in 2007 according to HSE (Health & Safety Executive).
- Asbestos-related deaths have increased fourfold in the last three decades according to a 2004 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- While the CDC reports people suffering from lung diseases caused by inhalation of mineral or metallic dust—such as coal—have dropped 70% since 1982, deaths due to asbestos exposure have increased at a steady rate, due to a long latency period of diseases and a record high usage during the mid-20th century.
- UK projections suggest that the number of men dying from mesothelioma in Western Europe each year will double over the next 20 years, from 5,000 in 1998 to about 9,000 around 2018, before declining.
Asbestos Fibers Resist being Eliminated by the Body and Cause Cancer and Disease
The inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause three serious—and often fatal—diseases. Two of which, asbestosis and lung cancer, affect the lungs, while the third, mesothelioma, affects the lining of the lung and abdominal cavities.
Repeated exposure to all asbestos fiber types is associated with asbestosis and increased risk of lung cancer. Mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, can be dramatically increased by exposure to amosite, crocidolite, or tremolite asbestos. Mesothelioma causes one in every 10,000 deaths in America today.
Other factors—such as the length of the fibers, and the duration and degree of exposure—can help determine the health hazard posed by asbestos.
Decades of Secrecy and Silence by Manufacturers’
For decades, manufacturers’ kept information about asbestos-related health risks from their employees. They put their workers into harm’s way, and placed their loved ones at risk for secondhand exposure. They maneuvered to keep their businesses alive by pressuring doctors to remain quiet, and manipulating research findings—even while facing stiffening regulation and rising health concerns in the media.
Decades Before Victims Learn their Fate
After a person is exposed to asbestos, decades will pass before he or she will show any symptoms of an asbestos-related disease. Often these symptoms appear only when the disease has already reached a life-threatening stage.
People who have been exposed to asbestos regularly for ten or more years are at the greatest risk for getting asbestosis. Anyone who falls into this category, and who also suffers from respiratory problems should consult their physician as soon as possible. Asbestosis symptoms are:
- Difficulty in breathing caused by inflexibility of the lung tissue
- Coughing, and chest pain
- Fingers may get thicker in a process called clubbing
- In addition, asbestosis can lead to other medical problems. For instance:
- Restriction of movement in the lungs by the scar tissue can cause pressure to build up in the arteries that supply the lungs with blood
- High blood pressure in the lungs can create more stress on the heart, and it fails from the strain