Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance. There are several different types of asbestos, all part of a family of silica compounds, made up of long and thin fibrous crystals. These bundles of asbestos fibers are made up of microscopic fibrils that are capable of being released into the atmosphere by abrasion or other ways.
The two main types of asbestos are chrysotile and amphibole. Chrysotile, also known as white asbestos is the most common type of asbestos used in industrial settings. Each of the various types of asbestos is made up of two primary types of fibers. Chrysotile asbestos fibers are curly, wrapping themselves around in a spiral or serpentine shape. Amphibole asbestos fibers are straight and look like needles and come in the form of amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite. Both types of asbestos have been linked to certain types of cancer and other asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos was used for years as an electrical insulator and in building materials because of its heat resistance, strength and failure to conduct electricity. During the industrial revolution, asbestos was primarily used to insulate buildings, make car parts, roofing shingles, tile, cement, textiles and other products.
In the early 1900s, researchers discovered a link between asbestos exposure and breathing issues. After it was discovered that asbestos was a toxic substance capable of causing serious health effects when inhaled, it became illegal to use asbestos as a building material or for almost any other reason in 67 countries throughout the world, including the United States. Now, there are various occupational safety rules and regulations controlling the use of asbestos. The Department of Health and Human Services, the National Toxicology Program (made up of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)), the World Health Organization and the EPA have all classified asbestos as a human carcinogen because of the link between asbestos exposure and cancer risk.
Where Does Asbestos Exposure Occur?
Most people are exposed to asbestos by a variety of risk factors including inhalation of asbestos fibers or swallowing asbestos fibers. Inhalation occurs typically during mining, manufacture of asbestos-containing products, installation of insulation that contains asbestos or during the demolition of buildings that contain asbestos. The asbestos fibers are released into the air, inhaled and get into the lining of the lungs. Asbestos fibers can also be swallowed when people ingest contaminated food or liquid.
How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?
Asbestos causes cancer when asbestos fibers are embedded in tissues and organs of the body. Over a long period of time, the asbestos fibers cause inflammation and genetic mutations which can lead to certain types of cancer.
Many of the cancers caused by exposure to asbestos take years to develop. The American Cancer Society estimates that asbestos lung cancer typically emerges 15 years after asbestos exposure. Risk factors that affect the risk of developing cancer caused by asbestos exposure include the amount of asbestos to which a person was exposed, the duration of the exposure, the type of asbestos fiber involved, the source of the exposure, individual risk factors and genetic risk factors.
What Types of Cancer Are Caused by Asbestos?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), has linked the following types of cancer to asbestos exposure: mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and cancer of the larynx.
Exposure to asbestos comes with an increased risk of lung cancer. Lung cancer can be caused when asbestos fibers damage the pleura of the lungs. Symptoms of lung cancer can take more than 10 years to develop. Smoking increases the risk of developing asbestos-related lung cancer.
Research is ongoing into the link between asbestos-contaminated talcum powder and ovarian cancer. However, asbestos fibers can travel to the ovaries through the reproductive system, blood and lymphatic system. Here, cancer cells grow because the body cannot get rid of the asbestos fibers.
The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma cancer usually presents in the lungs or the abdomen and is caused by asbestos fibers getting lodged in the linings of the organs. Mesothelioma in the abdomen is called peritoneal mesothelioma. The most common place mesothelioma cancer develops is in the pleura or the lining of the lungs.
Asbestos exposure can also cause non-malignant lung diseases like asbestosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pleural plaque, pleural thickening, pleural effusion, peritoneal effusion, pericardial effusion and rounded atelectasis. The IARC has also recognized positive associations between asbestos exposure and rectal cancer, pharyngeal cancer, stomach cancer and colon cancer.
What Are the Symptoms of Cancer Caused by Asbestos?
There are a variety of symptoms for asbestos-related cancer. They can include:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- abdominal pain
- difficulty breathing
- difficulty swallowing
- weight loss
How Is Asbestos Cancer Diagnosed?
In order to determine if a person has cancer caused by asbestos exposure, doctors look at the person’s health information including their medical history and occupational exposure as well as their symptoms. Testing also can include blood tests, X-rays and CT scans or a biopsy.
What Are the Treatment Options for Asbestos-Related Cancer?
There are a variety of treatment options for people who are diagnosed with asbestos-related cancer. Oncology departments of hospitals have various options for cancer treatment like surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. In addition, there are clinical trials that are ongoing.
What Should I Do if I Have Cancer Caused by Asbestos Exposure?
If your a loved one has already been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, you may be eligible to receive financial compensation to help with treatment options and as a result of your disease. You may qualify for assistance via a workers’ compensation program or be eligible to file a lawsuit as a result of your disease