Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous mineral, which was
used widely in industrial, commercial, and residential structures,
as well as in particular industries like shipbuilding and textiles.
Being naturally fire-resistant, asbestos was widely used in building
and insulation. Asbestos was largely phased out of production by
the 1980's in the U.S., though there is much asbestos still in
place in buildings.
Many workers handled asbestos before it was
phased out. People can still come into contact with asbestos
in building materials, especially during remodeling when old,
damaged walls, ceilings and pipe fittings are repaired or removed.
As asbestos ages, it eventually becomes loose and "friable" (crumbly
and easily disturbed). When asbestos-containing wallboard or
ceiling tiles are undamaged, the asbestos fibers do not become
airborne and do not pose a health risk. However, when asbestos
becomes friable, it is easily dispersed into the air, and can
then be inhaled by workers.
Once inhaled, its fibers can become lodged in the delicate tissues
of the lung. Many of these fibers reside in the lungs for the remainder
of the person's life. Others enter the bloodstream and end up in
other tissues. Asbestos can cause scarring and cancer in the chest
and selected cancers elsewhere in the body. Factors that affect
whether or not you were harmed by your exposure include how much
asbestos you came into contact with, and for how long that contact
If you had a significant exposure to asbestos, you are at risk
for asbestosis (scarring of the lungs) which can cause chest pain
and difficulty breathing. You are also at risk for several types
of cancers, including mesothelioma, and cancers of the gastrointestinal
system, throat, kidney, and lung. Your risks of getting some of
these cancers are greatly increased if you are a smoker, so it
is a good idea to stop smoking now.
An examination by a doctor trained to recognize signs of disease
can help you identify some of the effects asbestos may have had
on your health. A doctor can advise you on what you can do to reduce
risks to your health, can answer your questions, and refer you
for additional testing if needed.
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