In this article:
- What is asbestos?
- What are the health problems associated with asbestos exposure?
- How does asbestos cause these health problems?
- Have I been exposed? Where and how will I have been at risk of asbestos exposure?
- Are there other situations in which I might have been exposed to asbestos?
- What do I do if I think I have been exposed to asbestos?
- What to do if you have asbestos-related symptoms
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a material primarily used in building work prior to 2000, when its use was discontinued. It’s not dangerous when it is stable and contained, but when materials containing asbestos are disturbed or damaged, the fibres can be released into the air and inhaled. There were three kinds of asbestos used in building materials in the UK – crocidolite (blue asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos) and chrysotile (white asbestos). Chrysotile was banned in 1999, and crocidolite and amosite were banned in 1985.
What are the health problems associated with asbestos exposure?
When asbestos fibres are inhaled, the health problems they can cause are very serious, and in some cases, fatal. These are often hidden diseases that can take a long time to develop before showing symptoms. By the time you begin to show symptoms, it is often too late to have any effect on the illness. The effect is typically cumulative, so if you were exposed from an earlier age for a long time (ie, on a daily basis), there is a greater risk.
Asbestos exposure can cause:
- asbestos-related lung cancer
- pleural thickening
- pleural plaques
However, it’s important to note that not all people who’ve been exposed to asbestos will go on to develop a health problem. Many people who have been exposed will develop no health problems connected to asbestos at all.
How does asbestos cause these health problems?
When asbestos is disturbed, the fibres enter the air and can be inhaled. This can cause illnesses in the following ways:
How asbestos causes this
Cancer of the mesothelial cells – those that make up the lining of the lungs and chest wall, and abdominal cavity. There are several kinds: pleural (lung) and peritoneal (abdominal) are the most common.
Pleural mesothelioma: Inhaling asbestos can result in particles entering the lungs. The body can’t break down the asbestos fibres, so swelling and inflammation occurs in the surrounding area. The lining and membranes of the lungs and chest wall (pleura) can become irritated over decades and start to mutate, causing cancer.
Peritoneal mesothelioma: This works in the same way, but the asbestos particle may be ingested or go to the lung first then be coughed up and swallowed, leading it to affect the lining of the abdomen.
Asbestos-related lung cancer
In much the same way as mesothelioma, asbestos can lodge elsewhere in the lung, and cause irritation over decades that can generate a gene mutation like a tumour.
Asbestosis is a long-term lung condition caused by scarring in the lungs (brought on by the presences of asbestos), resulting in breathing difficulties.
Extensive fibrous scarring caused by asbestos particles can thicken the pleura (membrane covering the lungs). The scarring can grow and close off the space between the membrane and the lungs, making breathing difficult. Pleural thickening may be a precursor to mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer.
Pleural plaques are not cancerous – they are benign and don’t cause long-term health issues in themselves. They are a firm (sometimes calcified) fibrous thickening of the pleura on the chest wall, lungs or diaphragm. Although they’re caused by asbestos, it’s not yet known how.
Have I been exposed? Where and how will I have been at risk of asbestos exposure?
Asbestos has been used in many industrial, public and residential buildings built before 2000. That means it is still present in buildings built before 2000, so there’s still risk of exposure when it is disturbed. For this reason anyone working or living in a building that contains asbestos which has been disturbed is at risk of exposure. However, it is people who work with building materials on a daily basis who are the most risk.
Asbestos was used from the 1950s to the 1970s primarily, in industries like mining, manufacturing, construction, building maintenance, and shipyards. You might have a greater risk of health problems from asbestos exposure if you have or had one of the following jobs:
- shipyard workers
- demolition workers
- construction workers, including architects and surveyors
- maintenance workers, including caretakers, tradespeople like electricians, carpenters/joiners and plumbers, painters and decorators, roofers, plasterers, and people who install gas, electricity, fire and burglar alarms
- power plant or chemical plant workers
- industrial workers, including people who work in a mine or factory where materials containing asbestos are processed
- engineers, including heating and ventilation, insulators, telecommunications, and cable layers
In buildings, some of the things that may contain asbestos are:
- asbestos cement products
- loose asbestos in ceiling or floor cavities
- roofing felt
- floor tiles, textiles and composites
- sprayed coatings on ceilings, walls and beams/columns
- rope seals and gaskets
- asbestos insulating board
- textured coatings
Are there other situations in which I might have been exposed to asbestos?
Aside from people working in the building and maintenance trades, you may have also been exposed to asbestos if you were/are:
- working or studying in a school built pre-2000, where building work was happening or there were regular repairs
- working or living with someone who has had long-term regular exposure to asbestos
What do I do if I think I have been exposed to asbestos?
The important thing to remember is that exposure to asbestos does not automatically equal health problems. The risk of health problems increases in line with the regularity and intensity of exposure. However, some people who have had regular, long-term exposure to asbestos will develop no health problems at all.
If you think you have been exposed to asbestos, remember that it can take from 20 to 50 years for symptoms of an illness to appear. If you’re concerned, here’s what you should do:
- Tell your doctor that you think you’ve been exposed, and remind them annually
- Ask for regular pulmonary check ups
- Consider regular pulmonary function tests or monitoring
- Familiarise yourself with the symptoms of mesothelioma, asbestosis, asbestos-related lung cancer, pleural thickening and pleural plaques – and be vigilant when you develop any chest- or breathing-related problems. When you experience these symptoms, see your doctor and remind them about your exposure.
- Quit smoking. Think about the cumulative carcinogenic effects that both tobacco and asbestos could have on your lungs: they each increase a chance of developing cancer from the other. Strengthen your body against impaired lung function!
What to do if you have asbestos-related symptoms
If you think you’ve been exposed to asbestos and you later develop these symptoms:
- a chronic cough
- coughing up blood
- swollen fingertips
- swelling and pain in your face, neck, chest or lower back
- unexplained weight loss
…then see your doctor as soon as you can. Remind them about your asbestos exposure.
Don’t forget to contact us here at ASD, so we can help you claim for the effects of your asbestos exposure!
You can also check out our other resources about asbestos here:
- A Step-by-Step Guide to Your Industrial Disease Claim
- Your Complete Guide to Asbestos Claims
- Mesothelioma – Facts on this Industrial Disease
- Industrial Disease: You Might Have More Than 3 Years Since Employment To Claim
- All You Need To Know About Asbestos
- List of Papers About Asbestos
- Mesothelioma in Younger People: What’s the Risk?
- Myth-Busting Mesothelioma
- How Industrial Disease Compensation is Affected by Death
- Smokers at Greater Risk from Asbestos Related Diseases
- Asbestos, the Workplace and the Law: A Doctor’s Perspective