As November kicks off Lung Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a chance for all of us to take a deep breath, and reflect on lung health. As health professionals, we see the impact of environmental and industrial pollution, and its negative effect on global air quality and lung health. Therefore, as advocates of health, it’s important to focus on preventative measures, by raising awareness and preventing hazardous exposure to common airborne contaminants.
One surprisingly prevalent carcinogen that demands global attention is a mineral that’s been used for decades in the construction and manufacturing industries: asbestos.
What is Asbestos?
Although entirely natural, asbestos belongs to a group of six, fibrous silicate minerals, which are each harmful to human health. Chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, actinolite are all harmful forms of the mineral, known to cause disease such as lung cancer, pleural effusion, pleural plaque, pneumothorax, asbestos warts and mesothelioma, a rare disease which affects the lives of over 3,000 people, annually.
A Brief History of Asbestos
Though we have used it for centuries, its use peaked between the 1930s-1970s when it was used heavily in construction and manufacturing as an inexpensive, fire-retardant, and abundant additive. As a result, many homes and structures built during these time periods are likely to have asbestos-containing materials such as tiling, flooring, piping, insulation, plaster, cement, roofing, shingles, siding, brakes, brake pads, transmission plates, wires, cabling, heating ducts, fireproof clothing, crock pots, ironing boards, fertiliser, potting soils, adhesives, paints and more.
Knowledge of its harmful effects was not widespread until the 1960s, when researchers conclusively proved that asbestos is the direct cause of mesothelioma and other respiratory health concerns.
Today, health care professionals understand the health concerns associated with asbestos exposure, however, public awareness could be greatly improved.
Nearly 70% of the world today still allows some amount of asbestos use, import or export. Even today, some countries still consume tons each year. Furthermore, it is not entirely banned in the United States with products legally able to contain up to 1% of asbestos.
How is Asbestos Harmful?
Asbestos does not generally pose a threat to human health, unless disturbed or consumed. For example, when the fibres become airborne, inhaled or ingested, they can attach to the delicate pleura lining the lungs, abdomen or heart. Over time, these fibres irritate this lining, which causes scar tissue and cancerous tumours such as with mesothelioma.
Individuals exposed to asbestos may not show symptoms even 10-50 years after initial exposure. Unless detected early by an extremely thorough examination including numerous diagnostic imaging tests, the chances are that cancer will develop and may even go unnoticed until it is too late.
How Can You Prevent Asbestos Exposure?
Occupational and residential exposure is likely the cause for a number of lung health complications related to hazardous materials. As described below, high risk occupations such as construction workers, shipyard workers, mechanics, firefighters and more are at greater risk of being exposed than other occupations. However, exposure to asbestos can occur in a number of circumstances, including environmental pollution and home contamination.
Both construction professionals and DIY enthusiasts working within old commercial buildings, schools and homes are at risk of accidental exposure and unless safely mitigated or handled by a certified or trained asbestos abatement specialist, this exposure is likely to be fatal. Additionally, with the recent spate of natural disasters, homes or structures affected by severe storm damage or other circumstances, pose greater risk of containing damaged or transported hazardous materials.
Avoiding contaminated areas and unknown debris in these circumstances is just as important as hiring a trained abatement professional to inspect the home for possible contamination.
What Can Health Care Professionals Do To Help?
Raising awareness with patients is an essential step to preventing and eliminating asbestos related disease entirely. We’ve partnered with the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Centre in the preparation of the following three questions to guide conversation with patients likely to have been exposed to asbestos.
Question 1: What is your job history?
Including all full-time, part-time, and volunteer positions, this question is important to help identify anyone who was held a position with high risk of exposure.
Occupations such as asbestos workers, steel and shipyard labourers, construction labourers and DIY contractors, mechanics, plant workers, firefighters, teachers, plumbers, military veterans, manufacturers and more, are all at high risk of exposure. Even if an immediate family member has held any of these positions, second-hand exposure is likely as the fibres can be carried home on clothing, hair or various parts of the body.
Question 2: Have you experienced any of the following symptoms?
- Chest, lower back, or abdominal pain
- Shortness of breath, coughing (with or without blood)
- Difficulty swallowing or speaking
- Fluid in the lungs
- Nausea, vomiting, weakness, and weight loss
Symptoms above are common in individuals who have been exposed to asbestos. If a patient has experienced any of the symptoms above and has been or has potentially been exposed to asbestos, diagnostic imaging tests may be required.
Question 3: Have you ever been diagnosed and treated for any of the following illnesses, without achieving full recovery?
- Influenza (the common flu)
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Lung cancer
- Irritable bowel syndrome or hernias
Oftentimes patients exposed to asbestos obtain misdiagnosis of other health concerns or diseases. If a patient experiences any of the symptoms above and has received a diagnosis for one or more of the illnesses above, advanced screening and medical history questioning may be required.
Accurate testing for mesothelioma requires numerous imaging tests and a thorough biopsy, therefore, it’s nearly impossible to diagnose the disease based on one doctor’s visit or symptoms alone.
If you suspect your patient has been exposed to asbestos in the past, and is frequently treated for one or more of the symptoms above, you may want to refer them to a specialist. A detailed work history and background information on asbestos will go a long way when discussing overlapping symptoms with other physicians and discussing with patients early-on will enhance possibility of preventative action while also enhancing prognosis and treatment options.
For more information and support with asbestos and related illness, head over to the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Centre for guides, advice and community support.