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Asbestos and Cancer: Occupational and Environmental Risks

Construction site with tower cranes against clear sky.

At Restoration 1 of West Denver, our services include asbestos mitigation. While you may think Colorado homes rarely include asbestos materials, the fact is, asbestos was widely used to create products for many industries, such as building supplies. Learn more.

In this article, we discuss the occupational risks of asbestos exposure. Nearly 40,000 deaths annually in the U.S. are attributed to asbestos. Further, an estimated 1.3 million workers are potentially exposed each year. These figures are stark reminders that it is important to be aware of asbestos and its dangers, and to understand how to proceed if you have been exposed to asbestos.

Asbestos and Cancer

Asbestos exposure poses significant health risks, primarily increasing the risk of developing various types of cancer. The main cancers associated with asbestos exposure are:

Mesothelioma – Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer that affects the thin membranes lining the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma), heart (pericardial mesothelioma), and testicles. Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma, accounting for approximately 80% of cases. All forms of asbestos have been linked to mesothelioma, and there is no safe level of exposure regarding mesothelioma risk. The risk increases with the amount and duration of exposure.

Lung Cancer – Numerous studies have demonstrated a clear link between asbestos exposure and an increased risk of lung cancer. The risk is higher for those with prolonged or heavy exposure, and it is compounded by smoking. Asbestos workers who smoke have a significantly greater risk of developing lung cancer than non-smokers.

Laryngeal Cancer – Exposure to asbestos has been associated with an increased risk of laryngeal (voice box) cancer. While the evidence is not as strong as for lung cancer and mesothelioma, several studies have found a higher incidence of laryngeal cancer among asbestos-exposed workers.

Ovarian Cancer – Recent research has established a connection between asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer, particularly in women who have used talcum powder products contaminated with asbestos fibers.

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos exposure primarily occurs through inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers, which can happen in various occupational settings, such as construction, shipbuilding, mining, and manufacturing of asbestos-containing products. Workers in these industries have a higher risk of exposure, as do their family members due to fibers brought home on clothing and hair.

Environmental exposure can also occur in communities near asbestos mines, factories, or during the renovation or demolition of older buildings containing asbestos materials. Individuals involved in the rescue, recovery, and cleanup efforts at the World Trade Center site after the 9/11 attacks were exposed to high levels of asbestos.

The risk of developing an asbestos-related disease depends on several factors, including the dose (amount of exposure), duration of exposure, fiber type, and individual risk factors like smoking and pre-existing lung conditions. While all forms of asbestos are hazardous, some types, such as amphibole asbestos (crocidolite and amosite), are considered more potent carcinogens than chrysotile asbestos. However, there is no safe level of exposure for any type of asbestos regarding cancer risk.

It’s important to note that the latency period between asbestos exposure and the development of cancer can be long, typically ranging from 20 to 40 years or more. This delay makes it challenging to identify the source of exposure and implement preventive measures.

Medical Testing

There is no single definitive test to detect asbestos exposure itself. However, there are several diagnostic tests and procedures that can help identify asbestos-related diseases, which indirectly confirms past exposure to asbestos:

  • Chest X-ray – This can reveal abnormalities in the lungs, such as scarring or pleural plaques, which are indicators of asbestos exposure.
  • Computed Tomography (CT) Scan – CT scans provide more detailed images of the lungs and can detect early signs of asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis or lung cancer, before they are visible on X-rays.
  • Pulmonary Function Tests – These tests measure lung capacity and airflow, which can be reduced in asbestos-related diseases like asbestosis due to lung scarring.
  • Bronchoalveolar Lavage (BAL) – This procedure involves collecting fluid from the lungs, which can be analyzed for the presence of asbestos fibers or bodies, indicating exposure.
  • Lung Biopsy – In some cases, a lung tissue sample may be examined under a microscope to confirm the presence of asbestos-related changes or diseases.

It’s important to note that these tests do not directly measure asbestos exposure itself but rather detect the effects of exposure, such as lung scarring or the presence of asbestos fibers in the lungs. The latency period between exposure and the development of asbestos-related diseases can be decades, making it challenging to identify recent exposure.

If you have a known history of occupational or environmental asbestos exposure, discuss appropriate screening tests with your healthcare provider, even in the absence of symptoms. Regular monitoring and early detection can improve treatment outcomes for asbestos-related diseases.