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Asbestos and Cancer

Being Exposed to Asbestos Increases Your Cancer Risk

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Updated June 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals that were once commonly used in construction and industrial materials. High tensile strength and extreme resistance to heat and chemicals were highly sought in industrial projects, and asbestos provided that in many capacities.

Studies concluded that asbestos could contribute to cancer, leading to the Environmental Protection Agency's ban of asbestos in 1989, though the government began regulating its use in the 1970s. Although asbestos is no longer used in the same capacity as it once was, it may still remain in older homes and buildings. Although it may be present in some building structures today, it becomes a hazard when these buildings undergo remodeling or demolition -- when the areas that contain asbestos are disturbed and fibers are released in the air.

Not all types of asbestos are associated with cancer, however. The size, shape, and chemical composition of an asbestos fiber determines how it affects your health. Long, thin fibers are more likely to be deposited deep into the lungs, while shorter, wider fiber particles are less likely to invade the lungs but still may cause adverse health effects.

Health Effects of Asbestos Exposure

Serious health risks are associated with exposure to asbestos. Exposure primarily affects the lungs, resulting in scarring of the lungs, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Some studies suggest that exposure may be related to the development of throat cancer, colon cancer, and possibly other cancers, although this is debated. People who suffer from health problems related to asbestos were likely exposed prior to the 1970s.

The health effects of asbestos exposure are not immediate. There is a period of about 20 to 30 years before symptoms began to present themselves. Those with significant exposure may benefit from having regular chest x-rays and other diagnostic tests to monitor for any changes within the lungs.

The scarring of the lungs, called asbestosis, is caused by breathing in asbestos fibers. This is a non-cancerous lung disease that causes severe shortness of breath. The disease cannot be cured; however, symptoms can be managed.

Lung cancer is another concern for those who have been exposed to asbestos. Those who are exposed are at risk of both small-cell carcinoma and non-small-cell carcinoma. The risk of developing lung cancer after being exposed to asbestos is greatly increased in smokers, although non-smokers are still at risk.

Mesothelioma is a rare type of aggressive cancer that is caused by asbestos exposure. This type of cancer affects the mesothelium, the membrane that lines each of the body cavities. About 2,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the U.S. each year.

Who is Most at Risk of an Asbestos-Related Disease?

The workplace was once a common place for some workers to be exposed to asbestos. Occupations that carried the most risk of being exposed to asbestos are:
  • miners
  • shipyard workers
  • automotive workers, especially those who manufactured brake linings and clutches
  • railroad workers
  • insulation manufacturers and installers
  • construction workers
  • gas mask manufacturers
  • firefighters
  • demolition workers

Family members of workers are thought have a small increased risk of developing an asbestos-related illness. Asbestos fibers may have collected on the clothing during the workday and could have been inhaled by children and spouses when the worker came home each day.

If you think you may be at risk of an asbestos-related illness, please talk to your doctor about your risk. Together, you can make a decision regarding your health and possible preventative steps and/or screening methods that may be available to you.

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