How asbestos causes lung cancer

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Lung cancer is considered the most dangerous form of cancer to both men and women today, with more patients dying from this cancer type than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. Although lung cancer is most often attributed to smoking, this is not the only cause. Air pollution, various gases, and chemical exposure are also responsible for the development of this disease.

One of these pollutants linked to lung cancer is asbestos, a naturally-found mineral which has been used by humans for over four thousand years. The extensive popularity and use of asbestos, particularly throughout the 20th century, contributed to widespread exposure to this mineral. Asbestos found use in virtually all industries due to its unique set of useful characteristics. Theses useful attributes include the following:

  • Thermal insulation
  • Fireproof
  • Poor electrical conductivity
  • Sound insulation
  • Strength and flexibility
  • Resistance to chemical and water corrosion

Asbestos and Lung Cancer

A number of factors impact the risk of developing lung cancer due to asbestos exposure. These factors include the following:

  • Source of asbestos exposure
  • Dose, or amount of asbestos an individual was exposed to
  • Duration, or the length of exposure
  • Size, shape, and composition of the asbestos fibers
  • Other risk factors, like smoking and existing lung conditions

The risk for lung cancer development following asbestos exposure is due to the material’s friable nature, meaning it is easily reduced to small fibers. Once in a crumbled or dust-like state, asbestos fibers can easily enter the air as tiny particles which can be inhaled and enter the lungs. Because of their size and shape, the body cannot expel asbestos particles as efficiently as other pollutants, meaning they may become trapped and remain in lung tissue for extended periods of time. Eventually these fibers can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation which can develop into breathing problems, and eventually lead to lung cancer.

Sources of Asbestos Exposure

A number of careers put individuals at risk for developing asbestos-related lung cancer, including those who worked in construction, manufacturing, shipbuilding, mining, or emergency response. These individuals faced the greatest risks of regular asbestos exposure in the workplace, which poses the greatest risk of disease. Employees in these fields handled and manipulated asbestos materials on a regular basis over an extended period of time, frequently with little or no protection or warning of the asbestos exposure risks.

However, those who lived with individuals in careers that involved the use of asbestos were also at risk for secondhand exposure, particularly if they laundered the clothing of these workers. Asbestos fibers can attach to hair and clothing, traveling home with these employees. In addition, homeowners may still be at risk for asbestos-induced lung cancer due to the presence of asbestos materials in older homes. One major source of such asbestos is from insulations and textures which were manufactured with the material, including Zonolite insulation and popcorn ceiling texture. Even today, many homeowners across the United States may be at risk for exposure to asbestos materials which were disturbed, allowing the dangerous particles to break free and potentially lead to the development of lung cancer.


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