Region 8

Asbestos Health Risks

Asbestos-Related Diseases

Asbestosis is a restrictive lung disease which can be fatal. In addition, exposure to asbestos can cause lung cancer and a cancer of the lung lining called mesothelioma. While lung cancer has a number of associated causes, asbestosis and mesothelioma are uniquely associated with exposure to asbestos. The combination of smoking and exposure to asbestos greatly increases the risk of developing of lung cancer. We are most concerned about people being exposed to airborne asbestos and breathing in the tiny fibers.

ATSDR has additional information on asbestos exposure and its effects in Libby.

Also visit the Contacts page for information about medical services for asbestos-related disease.

Inhalation of asbestos fibers is the primary cause of asbestos-related disease. These fibers are very small and sharp. If they are not expelled through coughing or mucus secretions, they become embedded in the lung. Inhaled asbestos is associated with three major diseases:

  • Asbestosis – Asbestos causes scarring of lung tissue that eventually restricts one's ability to inhale.
  • Lung Cancer – Asbestos increases the risk of lung cancer, especially in combination with exposure to tobacco smoke.
  • Mesothelioma – Asbestos is thought to be the primary cause of this rare and deadly type of cancer of the lung lining and chest wall.

What If I've Been Exposed to Asbestos? How Can Asbestos Affect My Health?

From studies of people who were exposed to asbestos in factories and shipyards, we know that breathing high levels of asbestos fibers can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer; mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity; and asbestosis, in which the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue.

The risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma increases with the number of fibers inhaled. The risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibers is also greater if you smoke. People who get asbestosis have usually been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time, although not always. The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos.

Most people exposed to small amounts of asbestos, as we all are in our daily lives, do not develop these health problems. However, if disturbed, asbestos material may release asbestos fibers, which can be inhaled into the lungs. The fibers can remain there for a long time, increasing the risk of disease. Asbestos material that would crumble easily if handled, or that has been sawed, scraped, or sanded into a powder is more likely to create a health hazard.

The asbestos found in vermiculite materials from the former zonolite mine (Libby amphibole asbestos) in Libby is fairly unique. Asbestos is known to cause health effects at low levels of exposure. Because of this, the EPA recommends that people avoid all contact with vermiculite materials from Libby.

If you suspect you have a significant exposure to asbestos, there are some things you should do:

  1. Stop on-going exposures.
  2. Stop exposure to tobacco smoke.
  3. Get regular health checkups.
  4. Get prompt medical attention for any respiratory illness to prevent infections that can attack weakened lungs.

See Your Doctor

Individuals exposed to asbestos should inform their doctor of their history and any symptoms. An exam, including a chest x-ray and a lung function test, may be recommended.

Symptoms may not become apparent until long after exposure. If you have any of the following symptoms, you should consult your doctor without delay:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • A cough or a change in cough pattern.
  • Blood in the fluid coughed up.
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen.
  • Difficulty in swallowing or prolonged hoarseness.
  • Significant weight loss.

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