During the second half of the 20th century, cases of asbestos-related diseases were investigated and recognised for the damage they were doing to residents. Several safety measures were developed and taken to reduce a person’s exposure to asbestos. It also lead to the banning of asbestos in manufacturing materials. While cases of asbestos exposure significantly dropped but its traces can still be found in older buildings, homes and products made before the 1970’s.

Image/Janice Haney Carr
Image/Janice Haney Carr

Exposure to asbestos can increase the risk of developing asbestos diseases. The World Health Organisation estimates that over 125 million people have been exposed to asbestos around the world. In addition, half of the occupational-related cancers they studied were asbestos-related. Mortality rates are expected to rise between 2010 and 2020, as the diseases associated with asbestos tend to not become apparent till many years later.

Diseases related to asbestos can be fatal. Ingesting or inhaling large amounts of asbestos fibres can cause thickening of the pleura, appearance of plaques within the lung tissues and excess fluids in the pleural space. These conditions can lead to extreme cases, such as laryngeal, colon, ovarian and lung cancer.

Below are the different extreme cases of asbestos:

Lung cancer

Smoking is still the primary cause of lung cancer fatalities. However, several studies show that long-term exposure to asbestos also causes cancer of the lungs. Australia still has the highest rates of lung cancer and mesothelioma in the world. Compared to cigarette smoking, asbestos has killed twice as many people through lung cancer.

Patients suffering from asbestos lung cancer may have different survival and prognosis rates. The stage and type of cancer can influence the treatment’s results. Small cell or limited-stage cancer patients have a median survival rate of 22 months. Late-stage or extensive-care patients may have an 11-month survival rate. Chemotherapy is still the preferred method of treatment in both stages.

Bowel cancer

Bowel or colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers in Australia. Along with melanoma, breast and prostate cancer, it makes for over 60 per cent of cancers diagnosed in the country. This disease affects the large intestine and rectum. Some medical researchers found relations between high exposures to asbestos fibres and the risk of contracting this disease. Possible exposure to these fibres can cause the growth of cancerous colon polyps. The risk is exceptionally high for men who worked as insulation workers or insulators.

However, not all medical studies and research support these claims. Researchers suggest that only one type of asbestos (amphibole) may contribute to bowel cancer. Although there is no medical confirmation on asbestos’ link to this type of cancer, any unusual changes in bowel movement should be reported to a physician. And you should seek medical attention immediately.

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed gynaecological cancer in Australia. By the year 2020, around 1,640 women are expected to suffer from ovarian cancer and only 20 per cent of them will survive.

Women who were exposed to asbestos fibres would likely develop ovarian cancer later in life. Inhaled fibres may travel into the reproductive tract and make their way to a woman’s ovaries. This may now lead to inflammation and cancer.

Like most cancers, there is no concrete epidemiologic evidence to support such claims and researchers are still looking for stronger links to support this. Knowing the possible effects of asbestos exposure is still warranted, in spite of the weak links.

Laryngeal cancer

Since the larynx lies directly in our body’s airstream path, inhaled asbestos fibres can easily lodge in the larynx’s mucus membrane. Sputum containing asbestos from the lungs can also stick to the larynx after coughing it out. Excessive alcohol and tobacco use are other risk factors in developing laryngeal cancer. According to various studies, the risk of developing cancer of the larynx is higher in men.

Heavy alcohol and tobacco use are still the major factors of laryngeal cancer. Asbestos fibres may contribute to its development and research is still ongoing.

If you were or think you may have been exposed to asbestos, talk to your physician immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent or delay possible complications. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

Author: Asbestos Related Disease Support Society Qld Inc.