Understanding asbestos: What, where, how and why?

Submitted article

The news has seen an increase in stories involving hazardous materials of every kind from lead paint, to vaping, to asbestos in crayons—the bombardment of health risks and alerts is rising daily.

Though frightening, these events all have to do with the misuse of a product or material in a way that can harm individuals often due to lack of knowledge. One hazard that has been making headlines is asbestos.

This dangerous toxicant has caused building shutdowns, required renovations and forced recalls. For example, Philadelphia parents have been outraged to learn of the health risks their kids face while at school due to deteriorating walls, ceilings and asbestos fibers in the air.

Recently, a school in Fayette County was under demolition and further delays had arisen because of asbestos in the school’s tiling and insulation.

Outside of scholastic locations, asbestos has been found in consumer products. This summer, a cosmetic line was recalled because of asbestos in its makeup.

More recently, a line of talc powder was recalled because of alleged asbestos contamination in the powder.

All these headlines refer back to asbestos exposure and its dangers. A lack of understanding comes from people not knowing what asbestos is, how it impacts the consumer and why it’s so hazardous.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been mined for centuries due to its inviolable nature. It was often referred to as the “miracle mineral” because of its fire and electrical resistance, as well as its soundproofing capabilities. Because of these abilities, it was used in hundreds of products and construction materials that are still on the market today.

Though seemingly miraculous, asbestos is highly dangerous to humans. When asbestos dust is released into the air, the fibers are invisible to the human eye, making it hard to detect.

Once inhaled, the fibers can lodge themselves into the lining of the lungs, abdominal cavity or other parts of the body. Then the fibers irritate the lining until they are inflamed and scarring occurs. After a period of 10-50 years, tumors may develop into mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer that has low prognosis).

Mesothelioma has four main types, each developing in a specific region of the body: pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma and testicular mesothelioma.

Pleural mesothelioma is the most common of the four at 80 percent of all cases. The tumors form in the lining of the lungs which is where asbestos is most apt to enter the body.

Peritoneal mesothelioma is 15-20 percent of cases. Though more rare, peritoneal is just as dangerous because the fibers have lodged themselves in the abdominal cavity and tumors have begun to grow there.

Pericardial mesothelioma is the third most common as it counts for about 1 percent of all cases. It deals with the heart. Because of its rarity and relation to the heart, the prognosis is low and it has a one-year survival rate of 51 percent.

Testicular mesothelioma has had approximately 100 total cases reported however, 93 percent have been recurring cases and life expectancy is an average of two years.

Mesothelioma will remain a major concern until asbestos is properly banned throughout the globe. Until then, this carcinogen has the ability to wreak havoc throughout the public.

Asbestos minerals can be found in many locations throughout the world and are currently mined in various parts of the U.S. It can be mined with talc or individually. There are many mines and other naturally occurring asbestos deposits throughout the U.S. but most can be found on both the east and west coasts, such as California and Nevada or New York and Pennsylvania.

After extraction, asbestos can be broken down and integrated into materials for both commercial and private use. Some uses of asbestos includes: car maintenance (brakes, clutches, gaskets, paint, fiberglass), construction (flooring, adhesives, wallpaper, insulation, roofing, stucco, dust masks), refineries/plants (protective clothing, cement, boilers, ovens, steel molds) and consumer products (talcum powder, cosmetics, crockpots).

Occupational exposure is also a major problem. Many workers are exposed to asbestos fibers on a daily basis with the amount of exposure based on industry. Some occupations that have a high risk of exposure are construction workers, engineers, firefighters, hairdressers, farmers, HVAC workers, machine operators and mechanics.

Because of the many locations where asbestos can be found, it’s important to stay vigilant and report any potential hazards.

With the increased knowledge of asbestos dangers, regulations have been created by governments around the world. Many of these laws completely ban asbestos, while others control how it can be used in different settings. For example, in 2012 the UK issued multiple laws that either banned or heavily reduced asbestos in many materials.

In the U.S., asbestos has not been completely banned. The EPA has released various laws that prohibit asbestos in certain products and locations, as well as partial bans, risk evaluations, etc.

As research develops, a deeper understanding of the negative implications of this carcinogen will grow and its value will decrease. With enough education, awareness and persistence, countries may come to realize these concerns and put the citizens’ health as a top priority.

Submitted article