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For the longest time, asbestos, a mineral found in rocks and soil, was an incredibly common material in the construction industry. Builders gave asbestos, which occurs naturally as bundles of fibers, a lot of special attention. Mainly because of its fireproof properties, and they found it easy to work with and manipulate.
Because of these properties, manufacturers decided to put asbestos in just about any construction product you can think of. Asbestos became a significant component of floor tiles, cement, drywall, sealants, shingles, insulation, and siding, among others.
However, construction materials in not the only field where asbestos appear. After all, it wasn’t just highly resistant to fire and heat. It was also resistant to chemicals, water, and electricity. With that, many different industries found more uses for it. Varying amounts of asbestos found its way into car brakes, hair dryers, crock pots, and many other everyday products. In fact, there was a time when even baby powder also had asbestos content. The ubiquity of asbestos lasted for several decades.
However, concerns about the possible dangers of asbestos persisted over the years.
An ever-growing danger
As early as 1906, Dr. Hubert Montague Murray of the Charing Cross Hospital in London has already reported about an asbestos textile worker suffering from lung disease. Upon the worker’s death, an autopsy confirmed the presence of asbestos fibers in the lungs of the deceased.
The concerns over the safety of asbestos only increased dramatically over the next few decades. Until the International Agency for Research on Cancer listed asbestos as a human carcinogen in 1976. That same year, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health called for an asbestos ban in workplaces in the United States.
By the 1980s, the catastrophic impact of asbestos on human health has become well-known. With its dangers becoming public knowledge, many countries have since phased out and banned asbestos. One heavy asbestos-using country, however, still hasn’t banned the manufacture and use of the mineral substance despite incontrovertible evidence of its adverse effects on human health. But we’ll get back to that later.
The health risks associated with asbestos
Photo by Ktorbeck [Public domain]
Asbestos was the darling of many industries because of the properties mentioned above. But for all its touted resiliency, asbestos fibers break easily into extremely tiny pieces while handled or damaged. And when that happens, the people around will likely inhale those tiny fibers. When enough asbestos fibers accumulate in a person’s lungs over time, he or she will likely develop the following illnesses:
If there’s one illness that is universally synonymous with asbestos, it would be mesothelioma. A type of cancer that has caused eight deaths per million people in the United States from 1999 to 2015, mesothelioma affects the thin lining of the lungs (pleura) and the abdomen (peritoneum). It takes some time to develop into full-blown cancer, but by the time of diagnosis, mesothelioma is almost always fatal.
These days, close to 3,000 people in the United States receive a diagnose of mesothelioma every year. They suffer symptoms that include:
- shortness of breath
- chest or abdominal pain
- dry cough or wheezing
- fever or night sweats
- fluid around the lungs
- muscle weakness
To this day, there is no cure for mesothelioma. However, for a disease where surviving for a long time is rare, advancements in treatment have made it possible for some patients to live with this malignancy.
Asbestosis is not a cancer, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a serious condition. This disease develops after heavy and years-long exposure to asbestos fibers, which scar lung tissues and cause respiratory difficulties. As with mesothelioma, science has yet to come up with a cure for asbestosis, which can be deadly in severe cases.
Smokers are already at risk for lung cancer, but that risk multiplies when exposure to asbestos for a long time as well.
The risk for asbestos-related illnesses
Considering how widespread the use of asbestos was over the decades, everyone is at risk for diseases by the inhalation of its fibers.
In all likelihood, the building that we live in may have asbestos. Especially if the construction was before the public outcry against its dangers. And if your building does have asbestos, the simple act of using a drill on or banging a nail into a concrete wall could already cause the release into the air of asbestos fibers that you can easily inhale.
Seeing the use of asbestos in water pipes, the water we drink may have exposure to the deadly mineral. We’re also not sure if everyday products are already asbestos-free.
Still, our asbestos exposure is nowhere near the levels that of people with exposure to asbestos at work endure on a daily basis. Construction and industrial workers are always at risk of asbestos exposure. The same goes for those in the military service. After all, asbestos has always been and still is a commonly-used material for all manner of military vessels including aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, submarines, destroyers, and frigates.
No asbestos ban in the US
It was mentioned earlier that a country that has used asbestos heavily still has not imposed a ban on the use of the mineral. That is none other than the United States, once the largest consumer of asbestos in the whole world.
While the entire European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada have all banned asbestos, the United States, along with many other countries, continue to import and use asbestos. For products that include fireproofing materials, gaskets, roofing materials, and friction products, among other things. Despite all the horrors that asbestos brings, it’s still legally available in the United States.
With its continued use in the United States and the fact that so many old buildings all over the country—and the world—that are likely to be contaminated with the mineral are still standing, asbestos continues to pose a clear and present danger to everyone.