Asbestos, a naturally-occurring silicate material, was once used extensively at home and in the workplace. Light, strong, and inexpensive, its insulating, soundproofing, heat- and fire-resistant properties made it a popular material for a range of products. Asbestos was widely used in shipbuilding, construction, power stations, and factories. It was also available as a component of consumer products such as toasters, hair dryers, and clothes irons.
In the latter part of the 20th century, concerns grew over the safety of asbestos exposure. It was discovered that the small fibers within asbestos were harmful when inadvertently inhaled; causing damage to internal organs, particularly the lungs. In response, several countries have banned the distribution, sale, and use of asbestos.
Asbestos and lung damage
Asbestos is composed of long, thin fibers that break down into small particles. When fibers are inhaled, they cause irritation and scarring of organ tissue. Unsurprisingly, the most frequently affected organs are the lungs. People who have worked directly with asbestos-containing material are at a high risk of developing related lung disease. So too are family members, friends, and colleagues of those working with asbestos, as their clothing and equipment may have retained asbestos fibers, which are then inadvertently inhaled by those in close proximity.
Asbestosis is a chronic disease of the lungs, caused by asbestos-related scarring and inflammation. Common symptoms of the disease are:
Shortness of breath
Swollen fingertips (in advanced cases)
If a diagnosis of asbestosis is made, treatments may include symptom management and oxygen therapy. Unfortunately, it is not possible to reverse the damage caused by asbestos, and there is currently no cure for the condition.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer which affects the outer lining of organs; most cases are found in the lungs, but it can also target the stomach or the heart. Like asbestosis, this disease is caused by irritation and scarring to organ tissue, as a direct result of unintentional inhalation of asbestos. The outer lining of the lungs, or any other affected organ, may then develop mutations, cancerous cells, or tumors.
Mesothelioma may cause any or all of the following symptoms:
Loss of appetite
Unexplained weight Loss
Shortness of breath
Fever, particularly at night
Sadly, most mesothelioma cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage, and curative interventions are generally not possible. If an early diagnosis is made, surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy might be attempted. However, palliative care is the route taken by the majority of patients, to prolong life and minimize discomfort.
Understandably, many patients diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases will seek to secure compensation from previous employers, who are ultimately responsible for their safety at work. Most claims are successful; and average settlements are in the region of $1.2million. Cases that go to a full trial often result in awards upwards of $2million.
If you have been affected by an asbestos-related lung disease, or know someone that has, there are a wealth of resources available to help navigated the next steps. Speak with a doctor, palliative care specialist, or search online for an asbestosis or cancer website.