Asbestos is a material that people have used as insulation since the Industrial Revolution. There are strong associations between asbestos and certain types of cancer, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, which is a type of cancer that affects the mesothelial cells.

According to the American Cancer Society, several expert agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have classified asbestos as a carcinogen, which is a substance that causes cancer.

In this article, we discuss what asbestos is and its connection to lung cancer and mesothelioma. We also look at how people can avoid asbestos and what they can do if they have exposure to it.

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Asbestos is a group of minerals consisting mainly of oxygen and silicon, which occur naturally as bundles of fibers.

There are two main types of asbestos. The first is amphibole asbestos, which consists of straight, needle-like fibers. The second is chrysotile asbestos, which comprises fibers that curl and wrap around each other in a spiral.

Chrysotile asbestos is the most common type of asbestos that people use in industrial settings.

People previously used asbestos to insulate materials, including homes, textiles, parts of cars, and factories, due to its resistance to heat and many chemicals.

Now that researchers have determined the effects of inhaling asbestos and its links to cancer, it is much less common in modern materials. However, older buildings and other settings may still contain harmful amounts of the substance, and heavy use of asbestos continues in some countries.

Studies on both animals and humans have shown that asbestos exposure can increase a person’s risk of developing lung cancer.

When people inhale asbestos fibers, they can adhere to mucus in the:

  • throat
  • trachea, or windpipe
  • bronchi, which are the breathing tubes in the lungs

Some fibers can reach the outer lining of the chest wall and lungs, which is called the pleura, and the small airways of the lungs.

In these areas, they can irritate the cells, which can lead to lung cancer or mesothelioma.

Lung cancer occurs when cells in the lungs divide uncontrollably, which causes tumors to grow. The tumors can affect a person’s ability to breathe, and they can spread to other parts of the body.

Lung cancer can be fatal, but certain treatments, alongside earlier diagnosis, are improving the outlook for people with this disease.

Typically, the risk of lung cancer increases with greater exposure to asbestos.

Most cases of lung cancer in those with a history of exposure to asbestos occur 15 or more years after the first exposure to the substance.

Smoking is also a risk factor for lung cancer. The American Cancer Society note that those who smoke and also have exposure to asbestos have a risk of lung cancer that is even higher than adding the risks from the two separate factors.

The National Cancer Institute note that mesothelioma is strongly associated with asbestos exposure.

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer that affects the mesothelial cells, which are present in the lining covering the outer surface of the organs.

It most often affects the pleura and the peritoneum, which is the thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen and most of the organs in it. Rarely, it can also form in the testicles or heart.

There is no cure for mesothelioma, but palliative treatments may improve a person’s quality of life.

Most cases of mesothelioma result from asbestos exposure. According to a 2020 article, unlike with lung cancer, there is no link between smoking and mesothelioma.

The National Cancer Institute note that although low levels of asbestos are present in air, soil, and water, most people do not experience any ill effects from this type of exposure.

They say that it is more common for people to become ill from asbestos when they are exposed to harmful amounts, which is most likely when working closely with the substance. People who work in construction, shipyards, and factories or in renovating older homes or buildings have the highest risk of asbestos exposure.

The disturbance of materials containing asbestos — for example, while drilling or demolishing walls — triggers the release of asbestos fibers into the air. A person may then breathe in these fibers, which become trapped in the lungs.

Over time, these fibers can cause tissue inflammation and scarring, leading to serious health problems.

These issues include:

  • asbestosis, which is long-term inflammation and scarring of a person’s lungs
  • pleural plaques, which are areas of hard, scar-like tissue in the pleura
  • pleural effusion, which is a buildup of fluid between the lungs and the pleura

Older homes may contain asbestos as insulation. People can hire experts to check their homes for asbestos and determine whether it poses a risk to their health.

Experts may test the air for asbestos levels and advise whether a qualified contractor will need to remove certain materials.

If a person risks exposure at work, they should use proper protective equipment and adhere to the correct work practices and safety procedures.

A person can also contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is the federal agency responsible for health and safety regulations in most workplaces. OSHA can provide inspections and further information.

If a person experiences very low levels of asbestos exposure, the risk to their health is low. However, those who have experienced prolonged exposure or high levels of asbestos exposure may have an increased chance of developing lung cancer, mesothelioma, or other health conditions.

A person should visit a doctor for regular health checkups to look for signs of asbestos-related illnesses. Some doctors may recommend:

While these tests are unable to detect asbestos fibers, they may help identify related symptoms.

If the person is a smoker, they should stop smoking. It is also important to avoid secondhand smoke where possible.

The British Lung Foundation say that symptoms of asbestos-related conditions can take years to develop. Some conditions, such as pleural plaques, may not cause any symptoms at all.

However, signs of an asbestos-related condition include:

  • shortness of breath
  • persistent cough
  • wheezing
  • fatigue
  • chest or shoulder pain
  • clubbed fingertips
  • unexplained weight loss

A person should contact a doctor if they suspect that they have experienced asbestos exposure and have symptoms, such as a cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain.

It is important to note that short-term exposure to asbestos is unlikely to cause any health conditions. However, if the person is concerned, they can ask a doctor to make a note in their file about possible exposure.

The doctor should include the dates and duration of exposure, along with the type of asbestos and exposure levels.

Long-term exposure to asbestos can lead to both lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Using proper protective gear and following safety protocols can reduce the risk of exposure in the workplace. A person can also have a professional check their home for asbestos levels.

Anyone who notices any symptoms associated with asbestos exposure should seek professional medical advice. A person can also contact a doctor if they believe that they have experienced exposure to harmful levels of the substance, even if they do not currently have any symptoms.