What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos.

Sounds dangerous, right? But what exactly is it? Unless you’ve been affected by this hazardous material -- or you know someone who has -- it’s probably not something you think about every day.

Asbestos is found in rocks and soil. These mineral fibers have worked well for manufacturers for many reasons. For starters, they’re flexible and resistant to heat, chemicals, and electricity. That’s why they were widely used for years to make construction materials, automotive parts, and even textiles.

Other items that may contain asbestos include:

· Insulation in walls and attics

· Vinyl tiles used for floors

· Shingles

· Siding on houses

· Blankets that protect hot water pipes

· Fabrics that resist heat

· Car brakes

The fibers that form asbestos separate very easily into tiny pieces when they’re handled or damaged. They’re too small to see, but they’re easy to breathe in. They can build up in your lungs and cause health problems.

What Health Problems Can Asbestos Cause?

If you breathe in the fibers over long periods of time, you increase your risk for diseases like lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Smokers are even more affected. That’s because cigarette smoke irritates lung passages. This makes it harder for the lungs to remove asbestos fibers.

Mesothelioma. If you’ve worked with the substance, shared a home with someone who has, or lived close to an asbestos mine, see your doctor if you have trouble breathing or believe it’s affected your health.

He can do a chest X-ray or a pulmonary function test to see how much air your lungs can hold. A CT scan or biopsy might help him determine whether you have mesothelioma. That’s a type of cancer that affects the lining that covers the lungs, chest or abdomen. An early warning sign is fluid buildup around the lungs. Other symptoms include pain around the rib cage, problems breathing, a cough, pain or lumps in the belly, fatigue, and constipation.

People who have this kind of rare cancer were typically exposed to asbestos at work or lived with someone who was. It can take up to 20 years for symptoms to show up. Treatment may include surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.

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Asbestosis. This is a condition that affects the lungs. It can cause cough, shortness of breath, and even permanent lung damage. Symptoms might also include chest pain, and fingernails and toenails that look oddly wide or round. Like mesothelioma, it doesn’t usually occur until years after a person has breathed in asbestos fibers on a regular basis.

There’s no way to heal the damage asbestos causes to the small sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. But your doctor will help you manage your symptoms. He may prescribe oxygen to help you breathe. If you have severe symptoms, you may even be placed on a lung transplant list. People with asbestosis are more likely to develop lung cancer.

Can I Avoid Being Exposed?

Asbestos is so common that everyone has been around it at some point. It’s in the air, water, and soil. But when you’re exposed at such low levels, it’s unlikely to make you sick.

When buildings are demolished and homes are remodeled, asbestos can fill the air. It happens as the materials that contain it are destroyed. Home maintenance and repairs may also release the toxic fibers. You have less to worry about if you’re around asbestos products that haven’t been damaged in any way.

The U.S. government has controlled the use of asbestos since the 1970s. It’s not mined or processed in this country anymore. But it’s still used in items like vinyl floor tiles, cement pipes, clothes, and brake pads. The EPA has banned it in paper, flooring felt, fake fireplaces embers, and other products.

Unless you work directly with asbestos on a regular basis, your chances of getting related diseases are low.

On Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center was destroyed, hundreds of tons of asbestos got into the air. Rescue workers, nearby residents, and those who helped with cleanup efforts may have inhaled it. But the long-term effect of this exposure won’t be known for years.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on October 31, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Cancer Institute: "Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk." 

National Cancer Institute: "Mesothelioma: Questions and Answers."

CDC: "Asbestos."

MedlinePlus: "Asbestos."

National Cancer Institute: "What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer."

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