What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos refers to a group of six naturally occurring minerals, known for their durable, fire-resistant properties. Asbestos can be found across the globe, generally occurring in soil and rock. Asbestos has been used in a myriad of commercial and industrial applications since the 20th century. However, asbestos is also a human carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).
What Are the Six Types of Asbestos?
Asbestos minerals are broken into two major types: serpentine and amphibole. Chrysotile, the only serpentine form of the mineral, at one time accounted for nearly 90 percent of commercially used asbestos globally. Also referred to as white asbestos, chrysotile asbestos is known for its weavable nature and long, curly fibers.
The remaining five minerals fall under the amphibole classification — actinolite, amosite (brown asbestos), anthophyllite, crocidolite (blue asbestos), and tremolite. Unlike the serpentine asbestos structure, amphiboles have short, straight, stiff fibers.
Asbestos is also found in talc and talcum powder, presenting carcinogenic risks. While each form of asbestos is unique in structure, all forms of asbestos are dangerous to humans and are proven to cause cancer.
How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?
When disturbed, microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne and can unknowingly be ingested or inhaled with no way of being expelled. The tiny fibrous particles can become lodged in the mesothelium, resulting in the formation of scar tissue. Over time the scar tissue can mutate, causing malignant mesothelial cells to form.
Unfortunately, the effects of inhaled or ingested asbestos can take many years to manifest. Due to the long latency period (time between the original exposure to asbestos and the development of the disease) and the slow onset of symptoms, mesothelioma is generally not detected until it has reached advanced stages.
What Are the Different Types of Asbestos Cancers?
Mesothelioma is the most common cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. However, asbestos and cancer are closely linked in other areas of the body, as well. Seven additional asbestos-related cancers are listed below.
- Mesothelioma affects the lining of the chest, abdomen, and, in rare cases, the heart or testicular sacs. Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, which is sometimes referred to simply as asbestos cancer.
- Lung cancer
- While lung cancer can be caused by a number of factors, such as smoking, it has also been linked with exposure to asbestos.
- Laryngeal cancer
- Laryngeal cancer refers to cancer of the larynx, sometimes called the voice box. Like lung cancer, laryngeal cancer can be caused by a number of factors, but has also been associated with asbestos exposure.
- Pharyngeal cancer
- Like laryngeal cancer, pharyngeal cancer affects part of the throat and has been linked to the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers.
- Ovarian cancer
- While rare, ovarian cancer has been linked to the ingestion or inhalation of asbestos.
- Stomach cancer
- While not always connected to asbestos exposure, stomach cancer has been linked to the deadly carcinogen.
- Colon cancer
- As with stomach cancer, some instances of colon cancer have been linked to asbestos exposure.
Does Asbestos Cause Any Other Diseases?
Exposure to asbestos is also linked to asbestosis. While asbestosis is not a cancer, it is a chronic lung disease caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers, resulting in scarring of the lung tissue. As the lung function diminishes, patients living with asbestosis experience difficulty breathing and shortness of breath.
Diagnosing asbestosis requires an x-ray or CT scan as well as pulmonary function tests to see how well the lungs are working. Currently, there is no cure for the condition; however, treatments are available to slow the progression and alleviate symptoms.
Most people diagnosed with asbestosis have been exposed to asbestos occupationally. Researchers believe it is exacerbated by smoking.
Where Does Exposure to Asbestos Happen?
Before asbestos was a known carcinogen — and, unfortunately, even after this fact was discovered — asbestos was heavily used in a wide variety of applications, due to its durable and fire-resistant nature. During its heyday, asbestos was used in woven insulation, flooring, piping, military facilities and shipyards, automobile clutches and brakes, paints, adhesives, fireproof clothing and blankets, household appliances, and even talcum powder, which has been used in certain makeups and baby powders. It is still found in older homes, schools, hospitals, and other commercial buildings.
Despite its many beneficial properties, asbestos can be lethal when disturbed. Humans have been exposed to asbestos environmentally, occupationally, and even accidentally, often resulting in some form of asbestos cancer.
The World Health Organization estimates that half of all occupational cancer deaths can be attributed to asbestos. It also estimates that several thousand deaths per year are due to asbestos exposure in the home.
Construction workers, demolition crews, and mechanics also face the risk of asbestos exposure. While rare, secondhand exposure (also known as indirect exposure) poses an additional risk, especially to other members of the household, as tiny asbestos fibers can stick to clothing, skin, and hair and be transported into the home.
Interestingly, peritoneal mesothelioma is more often associated with non-occupational exposure than pleural mesothelioma. It tends to have a shorter latency period than occupational exposure cases and is predominantly found in women and diagnosed at a younger age.
The United States military was also a major consumer of asbestos products during much of the 20th century. Even after the Armed Forces became aware of the dangers associated with asbestos, its usage persisted. Navy veterans face the highest risk of exposure, as the Navy used asbestos extensively during World War II to prevent and contain fires onboard ships and submarines. Learn more about veterans and mesothelioma.
Even today, with the dangers of asbestos being common knowledge, people face negligent exposure. Apartment complexes, for example, have been severely fined and punished for putting their tenants in danger during hazardous asbestos remediation. Anytime a person comes into contact with asbestos negligently, they may qualify for financial compensation. Learn more about your legal options.
Occupations with a high risk of exposure to airborne asbestos:
- Any asbestos-product manufacturer
- Asbestos miners or millers
- Automobile mechanics
- Construction workers (carpenters, electricians, insulators, pipefitters, plumbers, roofers, etc.)
- Demolition workers
- Power plant workers
- Shipyard workers
- United States veterans (especially Navy veterans)