For many years, asbestos was manufactured and used industrially and in large quantities due to its resistant properties, highly desirable in construction. Buildings, houses, trains, and even hair dryers or cigarette filters usually contain this mineral.
Over time, however, research revealed that asbestos was highly dangerous to health. In this article, we will see what asbestos is, where it was found, and how it is related to cancer.
Asbestos is a set of silicate minerals found in nature. There are six types with different colors and uses in industry. These are chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite.
The extraction of this mineral has existed for thousands of years, but its use on a large scale did not begin until the nineteenth century when manufacturers and builders discovered its very useful physical properties in the construction of buildings and houses, as well as transport —trains or airplanes— and various materials.
These properties include sound absorption, tensile strength, resistance to fire, heat, and electricity. That is why this mineral was widely used for the manufacture of ceilings, sidings, grids, meshes, and even asbestos gloves.
Its use continued to grow for most of the following century until some research made public the health dangers of asbestos dust, specifically its relationship with some types of cancer, which led to a ban on its use and the urgent asbestos removal.
The most common way asbestos dust enters the body is through breathing. In fact, materials containing this mineral are not usually considered harmful unless they release dust or fibers into the air.
As mentioned above, asbestos dust and microfibers cannot be seen or smelled. Also, exposure to asbestos does not cause any immediate symptoms, so it is common that people inhale it for a long time without even knowing.
When inhaled, many of these fibers become trapped in the mucous membranes of the nose and throat. While some can be removed, many others enter the lungs or are swallowed in the digestive tract.
Once this dust enters the body the fibers never dissolve. Our body has extreme difficulty expelling them. Over time, this dust can cause inflammation, scarring and even genetic damage to cells, as well as some serious diseases.
These related diseases usually take 20 to 50 years to appear. Many of the cases diagnosed today were caused by exposure that possibly occurred before modern safety standards came into effect.
There is no minimum safe amount of asbestos exposure. However, it has worse effects when the person is exposed to intense or regular concentration over a long period of time.
According to scientific research, there may be a dozen different diseases and cancers related to asbestos exposure. These can range from mild, benign diseases to very serious, life-threatening ones, although the latter are usually much less common.
Not everyone who is exposed to this mineral develops cancer. However, exposure increases the risk.
Among the main diseases and cancers related to asbestos are:
Asbestosis is a chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease. In this condition, the fibers attach to the lung tissues causing them to scar. Associated symptoms include breathing difficulties and a rattling sound when breathing.
There is no treatment for asbestosis, so when the disease progresses it can lead to heart failure.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer and one of the most deadly asbestos-related ones.
Mesothelium is a protective lining in which tumors develop. It may appear on the lining of the lungs, stomach, heart, or testicles. Each specific type of mesothelioma has different symptoms, but almost all cases experience chest or abdominal pain and shortness of breath.
In this case, lung cancer is one of the most common ones among people who were exposed to large amounts of asbestos over long periods of time.
Also, for many years, cigarette filters were made from it, so smokers exposed to it were even more likely to develop lung cancer.
Another malignant tumor associated with this mineral is laryngeal cancer. It has been shown that there is a real link between its inhalation and this cancer. There are other factors such as smoking or alcoholism that make a person more prone to develop it.
In 2009, some research found a link between asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer. In the case of women exposed to this mineral, it reached the organs through the reproductive tract, the lymphatic system or the bloodstream.
Alleman, J. E. & Mossman, B. T. (1997). Asbestos Revisited. Scientific American, 277:54–57.