What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of six naturally-occurring minerals. Asbestos is largely used in construction to make roofs, floors, piping, cement sheets, brakes, shingles, and insulating machine covers. A high tensile strength coupled with anti-corrosive properties and heat and electricity resistance, make the material useful as well as deadly.
Asbestos is dangerous only when it disintegrates into fine fibers and dust particles, which when inhaled or ingested can accumulate and build up along the linings of the body organs. Since these minuscule fibers are non-degradable, they become permanently trapped and irritate the surrounding tissues, nerves, and organs and lead to numerous life-threatening health disorders.
Long-term asbestos exposure can, therefore, be extremely harmful if safety measures aren’t observed. Some occupations like construction, engineering, farming, furniture, and metalwork carry a greater risk of asbestos exposure. The key here is awareness and observance of the safety protocols when working with asbestos.
Diseases Caused by Asbestos Exposure:
To inform you about the various diseases that can be caused by asbestos exposure, we’ve compiled the following list of the common asbestos-related diseases.
Perhaps the deadliest but a rare disease caused from asbestos exposure is mesothelioma — a cancer that attacks the mesothelial cells present in the protective linings surrounding various body organs like the lungs, heart, abdomen, or even the brain. If detected earlier on, patients have a significant chance of recovery with mesothelioma treatment, but if the disease has progressed beyond a certain stage, recovery can be tricky if not impossible.
Mesothelioma develops in 4 stages, each worse than the one before it. Like all other cancers, mutations in the healthy mesothelial cancer forms the tumor which then metastasizes.
The mass that forms, due to excessive cell division of the bad cells, is called a tumor. Initially, the tumor remains restricted to its point of origin, but with time, it grows and spreads to other organs and tissues.
Stage 4 is where the cancer becomes terminal and chances of survival drop significantly.
Symptoms: Initially, the signs of mesothelioma indicate common cold, and the cancer, therefore, goes unnoticed. The patient will experience a persistent cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath. But as the cancer progresses, the symptoms become far more intense. The patients come down with a fever, experience night sweats, ascites, bloating, swollen hands and feet, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and difficulty in breathing even when performing mundane everyday tasks.
Cancers of The Digestive system:
Recent studies and researches demonstrate a strong link between asbestos ingestion and cancers of the gastrointestinal tract. The accumulation of asbestos fibers and particles triggers mutations in the stomach, colon, kidney, liver, and even in the bile duct.
Collectively, these cancers account for more than 286,480 cases annually, of which over 147,090 are fatal. Asbestos is a leading cause of the gastrointestinal tract cancers along with smoking and alcohol. When ingested or inhaled, the particles can build up in the tract, leading to an inflammatory response in the surrounding tissues.
Symptoms: During the earlier stages, symptoms are mild and may involve indigestion, stomach discomfort, nausea, heartburn, and a loss of appetite. At more advanced stages, though, the patients experience sudden weight loss, bloody stools, vomiting, bloating, development of ascites within the abdomen, trouble swallowing or breathing, and swollen limbs due to excess fluid retention.
In case of liver cancer, the skin can take on a yellowish tint which can be a sign of excessive bile production. The standard treatment option for most patients is surgery.
Effusion or ‘water build-up’ that occurs in the membranous coverings of various body organs is a common consequence of asbestos exposure. Organs of the body like the heart, abdomen, and lungs are surrounded by a double layer of connective tissue called the pericardium, peritoneum, and pleura, respectively. Their function is to protect the critical organs and hold them in place. Small amounts of fluid are present between the two layers to provide for lubrication, moisture, and to prevent friction.
The fluid buildup can increase if a foreign substance, like asbestos, disrupts the body systems. The increased fluid secreted then fills up the two connective linings. As the effusion gradually grows in size it exerts pressure on the surrounding organs, presses against nerves, and blocks capillary and vessel pathways.
If left undetected, the consequences can often be deadly. For instance, pericardial effusion can compress the heart to the point of cardiac tamponade. Similarly, by obstructing breathing, pleural effusions can prevent oxygen from reaching the body’s extremities and cause organs to die.
Symptoms: Symptoms vary depending on the type of effusion.
- Pleural: Patients experience phases of sharp chest pain, chronic dry cough, shortness of breath, labored breathing, and orthopnea.
- Pericardial: Swollen hands and feet, pain in the left side of the chest and left upper arm, dyspnea, chest fullness, lightheadedness, palpitations, and anxiety.
- Peritoneal: Loss of appetite, sudden weight gain, nausea, vomiting, ascites, swollen ankles and feet, fatigue, indigestion, constipation, and back pain.
Another asbestos-associated disorder is atelectasis that affects the respiratory system. The condition can lead to the lungs collapsing due to their inability to fill up. To understand how deadly this disease is, first, you have to understand how respiration occurs.
The air we breathe in through the nose passes through a cartilaginous tube called the trachea, which divides into separate pipes called the bronchi. The air in the bronchi enters the lungs and goes into further branch-like structures called bronchioles, which eventually end up at the minuscule bag-like structures called alveoli or air sacs.
The alveoli are responsible for the gaseous exchange in the lungs: the air is purified, and carbon dioxide is converted into oxygen. The air-sacs are lined with a layer of surfactant for the sake of lubrication. Inhalation of foreign bodies, like asbestos molecules, can cause the alveoli to become blocked and their volume goes down while the mucus secretion increases.
Depending on the cause of blockage, there are two types of atelectasis:
- Obstructive: Also called resorptive atelectasis occurs when foreign particles physically block the airways, forming a mucus plug. This prevents gaseous exchange within the alveoli, subsequently causing the lungs to collapse.
- Non-obstructive: It occurs when something pushes or compresses the lungs internally. This exertion that interferes with alveoli’s functioning can be due to the buildup of scar tissue, fibrosis, or even an effusion.
Symptoms: The intensity of the symptoms for atelectasis depends on the severity of the disease. Symptoms are milder when only one lung is affected, but extremely aggressive when both are affected. Patients may experience sharp chest pain, shallow coughing, and shortness of breath when walking or talking.
As the condition worsens patients experience fast and shallow breathing and can only breathe when sitting in an upright position. Patients may also report palpitations, fast heart rate, and cyanosis – a condition that makes the skin appear bluish-purple caused by a lack of oxygen supply to body organs and extremities.
Inhaling or ingesting asbestos can harm you in more ways than one. While the exposure cannot be eliminated completely, prevention and precaution can certainly minimize the risks involved in asbestos exposure. Wearing a mask, covering your hands with gloves, and spending less time in areas with higher asbestos presence, are small habits that will keep you safe.