How Does Asbestos Affect the Lungs?
Long term exposure to asbestos can cause three serious health problems; asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Everyone who has ever breathed in asbestos is not necessarily going to get one of these diseases. No one knows for sure if there is a safe level of exposure, but the risk increases as the exposure level increases.
Asbestosis is scarring of the lungs. It's a slow developing problem that may not show up for years. A person will have more and more trouble breathing because of scar tissue buildup. Damage is permanent and related to the total exposure to asbestos. Anyone who works around asbestos for years and doesn't take precautions can develop asbestosis.
Lung Cancer is responsible for the most asbestos related deaths. Your risk of lung cancer increases with the length of time you are exposed to asbestos, even more if you smoke.
Mesothelioma is a rare and fatal type of cancer. It attacks the linings of the chest or abdominal cavity. Low exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma.
Other Cancers may sometimes be related to asbestos exposure, including cancer of the larynx, stomach, colon and esophagus. This is because the asbestos fibers may get into your gastrointestinal tract if you swallow mucus that contains asbestos from your lungs or if you swallow secretions that contain asbestos from your nose or mouth.
What are the Symptoms of Asbestos?
If you think you've been exposed to asbestos and are experiencing any of these symptoms alone or in combination, contact your doctor or a specialist in occupational medicine. The specialist will want to know what kind of jobs you've worked on in the past and for how long. They may want to do tests to see if any problems are developing or already exist.
Shortness of breath-increases over time
Coughing up blood
How Do You Recognize Asbestos? It is usually hard to tell if a material contains asbestos. Products that contain asbestos are most often not labeled. Getting information from the manufacturer can be difficult, especially if the material is old and you don't know where it came from. If you have doubts, the safest thing to do is assume that the material does contain asbestos. This doesn't always mean it's dangerous, asbestos isn't a health hazard until fibers are being released. By the time symptoms appear lung cancer may have already spread to other parts of the body. If you have asbestosis, a disease which cannot be cured, you may not have been aware of the symptoms for years! Prevention is the only way to stay healthy.
Protecting Workers from Asbestos
The federal government has been regulating asbestos for years, and most states have programs too. The EPA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have taken an active role in protecting workers from asbestos. In 1989 the EPA banned asbestos products. There are state and federal regulations governing the way asbestos is handled, repaired or removed.
What Should You Do at Work to Protect Yourself from Asbestos Exposure Wear protective clothing, shower at the end of your shift, and change before going home. Work clothes should be cleaned by a company that specializes in asbestos contamination.
Don't eat or drink while you are working.
Do not smoke. Asbestos workers who smoke have up to 90 times the chance of dying of lung cancer.
When you take a break, wash your hands thoroughly before you tough anything you put into your mouth. Store food and belongings away from work areas in a closed space where dust can't settle on them.
Pay attention to the work practices your employer teaches you. They make sense even if they seem like trouble to carry out.
Use a special respirator for certain jobs. Ordinary dust masks are not enough protection. You may need special gloves, disposable too.
Don't clean brake assemblies or drums with compressed air-use an enclosed vacuum system with a box that fits around the brake assembly. Never grind brake linings. You can do the job with slow lathe-turning and produce less dust.
Asbestos containing material that is wet is usually safer to work with than dry, crumbling material. Just spraying water on something doesn't make it safe. You need to know when and how to do it.
Don't let other people who are not wearing protective clothing or other devices into your work area.
Clean up carefully after the job is finished. Don't track dust around, or leave it behind.
Transporting and disposing of asbestos waste should only be done by a person trained in how to handle it.
If you notice damage to materials you think might contain asbestos, report it to your supervisor right away. Don't try to repair or clean anything that is damaged, that contains asbestos, unless you have been trained in how to do it.
If your employer or union representatives don't correct problems that you report, you can ask OSHA to investigate. You can also contact the Asbestos coordinator in your EPA Regional Office.
Important! The symptoms of asbestos related lung disease may take years to show up. Even if you feel fine, don't make the mistake of thinking that you don't need to take precautions. By the time symptoms appear lung cancer may have already spread to other parts of the body. If you have asbestosis- a disease which cannot be cured, you may not be aware of the symptoms for years! Prevention is the only way to stay healthy.