According to WHO, about 125 million people in the world are exposed to Asbestos at work, and 90,000 people die each year from asbestos-related illnesses. There are more deaths from Asbestos exposure than the number of deaths from road accidents.
Asbestos is a commonly found mineral in buildings constructed before the 2000s. Although the use of Asbestos was banned in 60 countries, it is still found in structures. Homes, offices, factories, schools, hospitals – many buildings still contain this harmful mineral in their foundations.
The manufacturing and construction sectors used the mineral widely for its robustness and fire-resistant properties. For years, individuals handled asbestos unaware of the full extent of potential long-term repercussions on their well-being.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral commonly found in rock and soil. There are six types of Asbestos, composed of long and thin fibrous crystals.
The mineral has been used for centuries in the construction industry for its strength and heat-resistant properties. Buildings constructed before 1980 contain asbestos, including roof, ceiling, floor, attic and pipe insulation.
Why Was Asbestos Widely Used?
Asbestos, also known as the hidden killer, kills around 40 tradesmen every week, with the number increasing for decades. It cannot be seen but is present in millions of buildings.
Now you must be wondering why this mineral was used so commonly if it is so dangerous. Well, it is because it had so much to offer. It was strong, cheap, heat and electric insulator, fire resistant, chemical resistant, water resistant, and the list goes on. All these properties were perfect for construction, which is why it was used so much.
What is Asbestos Exposure?
Asbestos exposure takes place when individuals breathe in or consume microscopic asbestos fibres, a process that occurs when these tiny fibres become suspended in the air. These fibres were frequently utilised in various items, including insulation and construction components. When these materials break down or are disturbed, they have the potential to release particles of asbestos dust.
Asbestos exposure was prevalent in industrial, manufacturing, and military environments. Exposure to asbestos while on the job is termed occupational asbestos exposure. Those who do not directly work with asbestos can still be at risk through indirect exposure. For instance, an individual might inadvertently transport asbestos fibres home on their personal belongings, which family members or housemates may inhale.
Upon entering the body, asbestos may lodge within organs and sensitive tissues, including the lining of the lungs, potentially causing irritation. This can also lead to scar tissue formation and tumours, resulting in cancers like mesothelioma.
Detecting asbestos exposure isn’t immediate or obvious. The symptoms of illnesses caused by asbestos usually show up decades later. This long time makes it hard for people to remember where they were exposed. Some might not even know they were around asbestos.
High-Risk Occupations for Asbestos-Related Diseases
Individuals working in the construction industry are prone to encountering asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). The military ships also had asbestos, exposing the military personnel to asbestos. As a result, numerous veterans suffer from the aftermath of past contact.
Firefighters, miners, and automotive repair specialists are also at risk of Asbestos exposure. Even housekeepers may inadvertently disrupt asbestos-containing materials while performing cleaning tasks.
Top 8 Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure at Work
Prolonged and consistent exposure to asbestos fibres significantly heightens the susceptibility to developing mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is an uncommon yet aggressive form of cancer that primarily targets the lungs, abdomen, or heart lining. It incubates over an extended latency period, often spanning decades before exhibiting apparent symptoms subsequent to the initial exposure.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 2,268 deaths were reported in 2021 from Mesothelioma. This statistic highlights the urgency and gravity surrounding the prevention, awareness, and management of this threatening health risk posed by asbestos exposure.
2. Lung Cancer
Asbestos exposure stands out as a primary trigger for lung cancer, particularly impacting those who engage in smoking. It manifests as a cancerous growth that obstructs the air passages within the lungs. The risk of developing lung cancer increases remarkably when smoking combines with exposure to asbestos.
According to a large-scale study, people exposed to asbestos were 5x more likely to develop cancer than non-exposed people. Moreover, individuals who smoked and encountered asbestos had a staggering fiftyfold increased risk of cancer compared to individuals without exposure to either factor.
Inhalation of asbestos fibres can lead to the onset of asbestosis, a respiratory illness characterised by scar tissue formation and inflammation within lung tissues. This pathological progression causes a spectrum of respiratory complications, including persistent breathlessness, chronic coughing, and a shortened lung capacity, altogether impairing pulmonary function. Health and Safety Executive statistics show that in 2019, 490 people lost their lives to asbestosis.
4. Pleural Disorders
Pleural disease is a common problem which affects 3,000 individuals per million population every year. Exposure to asbestos can provoke an array of pleural disorders, such as:
- Pleural plaques, in which there is a thickening of segments within the lung lining
- Pleural effusion, which leads to the accumulation of fluid between the lung and chest wall
- Pleuritis in which there is an inflammation of the lung lining.
Such conditions cause discomfort and respiratory challenges, contributing to compromised breathing functions.
5. Gastrointestinal Cancers
Studies suggest a strong correlation between asbestos exposure and specific gastrointestinal malignancies encompassing oesophagal, gastric, colonic, and rectal cancers.
A report published in 1985 analysed data from more than 45 studies of mortality data amongst asbestos-exposed workers. When reviewed, familiarities were found in the data, showing gastrointestinal cancers. The results showed that workers who were exposed to asbestos had a significant elevation of oesophagal, stomach, and gastrointestinal tract cancers.
6. Respiratory Issues
Asbestos exposure significantly contributes to various respiratory issues, posing severe health risks to individuals who come into contact with its fibres. Exposure to elevated concentrations of asbestos fibres can cause acute respiratory troubles, with symptoms such as bouts of coughing and shortness of breath. These initially acute symptoms can increase over time as a consequence of persistent exposure.
Moreover, asbestos exposure has been shown to render individuals substantially more vulnerable to respiratory maladies like pneumonia and bronchitis.
7. Cardiovascular Complications
Research indicates that exposure to asbestos can result in more than just cancer, extending to heart-related issues as well. Scientists have found a link between asbestos exposure and the development of cardiovascular ailments.
A study spanning from 1971 to 2005 examined 15,557 individuals with asbestosis, revealing that 4,185 of them succumbed to cardiovascular complications. This figure significantly surpasses anticipated levels, underscoring an elevated likelihood of heart-related conditions among individuals working with asbestos.
7. Heightened Susceptibility to Infections
Asbestos exposure harms the immune system, rendering people more prone to illnesses. Asbestos fibres can cause oxidative stress and chronic inflammation in the lungs when they are inhaled. This interferes with the body’s regular operations of the immune system. As the body’s defences compromise, it makes it difficult for the immune system to fight off diseases successfully.
Steps to Minimise the Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Here are some important steps that organisations must take to ensure their employees’ safety and well-being:
Identify and Assess
Conduct thorough assessments to identify the presence of asbestos in the workplace. Appoint professionals with asbestos risk awareness training to conduct surveys and testing.
Whenever possible, avoid disturbing asbestos-containing materials. This can prevent the release of asbestos fibres into the air. Implement procedures for safe handling and maintenance of asbestos-containing materials.
Training and Education
Provide asbestos awareness training to employees about the risks associated with asbestos, how to identify potential sources of exposure, and proper safety protocols to follow.
Use Protective Equipment
Equip workers with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, coveralls, and respiratory protection. Ensure that employees are trained in properly using, maintaining, and disposing of this equipment.
Implement engineering controls, such as using proper ventilation systems and isolation methods, to prevent the spread of asbestos fibres in the workplace.
Establish safe work practices that minimise the risk of asbestos exposure. Provide guidelines for handling, removal, and disposal of asbestos-containing materials.
Regulations and Compliance
Familiarise yourself with local and national workplace regulations related to asbestos exposure. Follow these regulations rigorously to ensure compliance.
Proper Removal and Abatement
If asbestos-containing materials need to be removed, ensure that the process is carried out by trained and certified professionals using approved methods to minimise fibre release.
Conduct regular air monitoring to assess asbestos fibre levels in the workplace to ensure that exposure remains within safe limits.
Develop and communicate clear procedures for handling emergencies involving potential asbestos exposure, such as accidental material damage or spills.
With millions of people worldwide exposed to asbestos on the job and thousands of annual deaths attributed to asbestos-related diseases, there is an urgent need to address this issue. The way asbestos-related illnesses show their symptoms decades later makes it even more important to take appropriate preventive measures.
It is high time for industries to recognise the gravity of the situation and prioritise the safety of their workforce through meticulous identification, risk assessment, proper handling, and adherence to regulatory guidelines.