Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that poses serious health risks. Asbestos is composed of small particles that when airborne are easily ingested or inhaled. The mineral was once used in the manufacturing of building materials and the construction industries because of its fireproof qualities. The strength and resilience of asbestos made it a good choice for industrial purposes but the fibers can penetrate bodily tissues such as the lungs, heart, and abdomen resulting in cancerous tumors. These tumors, as well as scarring of the lungs and vital tissues can lead to various illnesses and diseases, most of which have no known cure.
Asbestosis is a chronic and inflammatory medical condition that affects the parenchymal tissue of the lungs. It is considered an occupational lung disease and is caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos. Asbestosis is not considered a cancer; however, those diagnosed with asbestosis are at an increased risk for malignancies such as lung cancer and the rare but deadly cancer, mesothelioma. The exposure to asbestos causes scarring of the lungs, resulting in symptoms similar to those of mesothelioma. Another similarity between the two is the long latency period associated with asbestosis. Latency periods are the time in between the initial exposure and the onset of symptoms. There are no curative treatments in place for asbestosis; rather patient’s symptoms are relieved through the use of palliative methods. These treatments typically involve oxygen therapies to relieve symptoms such as shortness of breath.
Some common symptoms of asbestosis include:
- Clubbing of the fingers
Lung cancer is the second most common form of all cancers and is commonly associated with smoking. However, exposure to asbestos (especially when coupled with smoking) and other toxins is also a known causation. Lung cancer is usually divided into two major groups:
- Non small-cell lung cancer—which comprises the majority of diagnoses
- Small-cell lung cancer—accounts for between 10 to 15 percent of diagnosed lung cancers
According to the National Cancer Institute these two types of lung cancer combined totaled over 220,000 cases and 150,000 deaths in 2010 alone. Common symptoms of lung cancer in general include:
- Persistent cough
- Weight loss
- Chest pain
- Changes in sputum
- Coughing up blood
Treatments for lung cancer include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, which are considered mainstream approaches to cancer treatment. Some patients may opt for alternative therapies or what is known as “watchful waiting,” in which patients defer any form of treatment until their symptoms interfere with daily activities and functions.
A fatal form of cancer, malignant mesothelioma, is caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos. While somewhat rare, with 2,000 to 3,000 new cases diagnosed annually in the United States (according to the American Cancer Society), mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer that manifests in the tissues surrounding the chest cavity and abdomen, and very rarely in the tissues surrounding certain reproductive organs. Mesothelioma, like asbestosis, has a significantly long latency period. This dormancy period allows the disease to manifest and metastasize, generally not being diagnosed until the cancer has developed into the late stages of cancer.
Symptoms of mesothelioma are similar to those of asbestosis and lung cancer, with slight variations depending on the original location of the malignancy. Treatments are generally palliative in nature, which means that they are aimed at treating a patient’s symptoms and improving their quality of life, rather than attempting to cure the malignancy itself. However, some patients when diagnosed in the early stages of disease have managed to have most of the cancer removed through drastic surgical procedures coupled with multimodal treatment methods.
Once considered a “miracle mineral,” asbestos is now regulated by the U.S. Federal government; however, it is yet to be banned in the United States, a common misconception. People experiencing symptoms associated with these illnesses and diseases that have been exposed to asbestos should speak with their physician regarding their chances of developing an asbestos-related malignancy or illness.