We’ve all heard of asbestos. It’s even been in the national news lately. But what is it? We’ve hard reference to “asbestos fibers”, so is it grown, like cotton, or manufactured, like nylon? Actually, it’s neither. Asbestos is the common name for six different minerals that all naturally occur. That’s right, asbestos comes from rocks.
According to the American Cancer Society, asbestos exposure is the main cause of mesothelioma, an aggressive and deadly form of cancer. When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they travel to the ends of your small air passages and reach your lungs, where it causes inflammation, scarring, and eventually lung cancer. Asbestos fibers are microscopic, hundreds of times thinner than a human hair. When asbestos fibers become airborne, they can easily be inhaled. The fibers lodge deep in the lungs or other organs, irritating the tissue and eventually causing grave illnesses. All types of asbestos are deadly and inhalation of a single fiber can be enough to cause disease. If asbestos fibers are swallowed, they can reach the abdominal lining where they cause stomach cancer. Because the signs and symptoms of mesothelioma are very common, such as painful coughing, shortness of breath or chest pains, mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed or worse yet, isn’t diagnosed until the cancer has spread drastically and it’s too late.
The use of asbestos reached its peak during the middle of the 1900’s. Asbestos was used for fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipes and fireplace cement, heat, fire, and acid resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing, lawn furniture, and drywall joint compound. Asbestos gloves were manufactured for workers who had to handle hot materials, including volcanologists who had to handle fresh lava. Asbestos was everywhere, in office buildings, stores, apartment buildings, houses – even hospitals. In 1940, Life magazine actually called it “the magical mineral.”
The thing is, there were signs that exposure to asbestos was dangerous to people’s health going back about 2,000 years. The ancient Greek geographer Strabo wrote about a “sickness of the lungs” in slaves who wove asbestos into cloth. But it was not until 1899 that doctors started finding asbestos fibers in the lungs of people who had died of various lung diseases at early ages who had worked in asbestos mines and asbestos factories.
Approximately 100,000 people in the United States have died, or are terminally ill, from asbestos exposure related to ship building. Thousands of tons of asbestos were used in World War II ships to insulate piping, boilers, steam engines, and steam turbines. There were approximately 4.3 million shipyard workers in the United States during WWII; for every 1,000 workers about 14 died of mesothelioma and an unknown number died from asbestosis. The writer of this blog post lost a family member to mesothelioma, most likely caused by being a member of the U.S. Navy during World War II and handling asbestos as part of his duties.
Mesothelioma is a real, silent disease that takes a toll on the lives of many families. Contrary to popular belief, asbestos is not banned in United States. In fact, regulations regarding asbestos have recently been loosened. Asbestos is still present in numerous buildings in the United States that were constructed before the year 1981. Which means that people still run the risk of exposure to asbestos and contracting mesothelioma.