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An asbestos primer: how does asbestos exposure cause illness?

Most people in North Carolina know that asbestos poses a significant health hazard, but not everyone understands how this material causes illness. In our last blog under the title "Asbestos Primer," we described the physical nature of asbestos: it is a naturally occurring mineral that was commonly used in sulation products, brake linings and valve gaskets before its health risks were discovered. In this post, we will discuss the medical implications of exposure to asbestos-containing products.

Asbestos fibers must be inhaled before the substance can cause medical problems. Exposure to airborne fibers results when the asbestos-containing material is cut, sanded, broken or otherwise disturbed. Exposure can occur in the home, the workplace, or in the community at large. If a sufficiently large amount of asbestos fibers are inhaled, a person can ultimately develop one of several diseases caused almost exclusively by asbestos fibers.

The disease process begins when fibers lodge in the thin tissue that lines the lungs and abdomen. The fibers cause inflammation, which after many years, can cause asbestosis, an inflammatory disease that interferes with the lungs' ability to infuse the blood with oxygen, or mesothelioma, a rare type of lung cancer that studies have shown to be caused almost exclusively by inhalation of asbestos fibers. Some studies also appear to indicate that asbestos fibers can cause various kinds of cancer in the colon, stomach, throat, kidneys, esophagus and gallbladder.

The illnesses caused by asbestos product exposure have what doctors call a long latency period, that is, the first symptoms of illness, usually shortness of breath or repeated coughing, do not appear for many years after exposure. The latency period can be as long as several decades before a person has active symptoms. Asbestos-related diseases are very serious illnesses. Persons who have been exposed to asbestos fibers and who are experiencing respiratory difficulties should seek a medical evaluation. If a disease caused by asbestos is diagnosed, the person should also consult attorneys who are experienced in submitting and prosecuting claims for damages caused by asbestos exposure.

Source: National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet, "Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk", accessed on Feb. 2, 2015

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