Although it was once commonly used for insulating buildings and machinery, the use of asbestos has declined sharply over the last several decades as people became more aware of the serious health consequences associated with asbestos exposure.
However, due to the widespread use of asbestos in the 20th century and the length of time it sometimes takes after exposure for a person to develop an asbestos-related disease, many people who were exposed to asbestos decades ago are only beginning to show symptoms of a serious and potentially fatal illness.
One of the most deadly diseases associated with asbestos exposure is mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer which can occur in the lining of the lungs, heart or abdomen. Some of the most common mesothelioma symptoms include severe chest pains, shortness of breath and a persistent cough.
Individuals who have manufactured, installed or worked with products containing asbestos are at a much greater risk of developing mesothelioma symptoms. People who live close to asbestos mining areas, factories that make asbestos products or shipyards where asbestos is used may also be at risk of receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis. In some cases, the relatives of workers who accidentally carried asbestos fibers home with them on their work clothes have also been diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Patients who have suffered asbestos exposure may take up to 50 years before they begin to show the first signs of mesothelioma. But in spite of its long gestation period, there is no known cure for malignant mesothelioma and the disease is almost always fatal.
Most patients who receive a mesothelioma diagnosis survive for an average of one to five years. The prognosis for each patient depends on the tumor's size and stage, the type of cells and whether or not mesothelioma treatments are effective at treating the disease.
The greatest number of deaths related to asbestos exposure are the result of lung cancer. The rate of lung cancer cases in workers who are directly involved in the mining of asbestos, or in the manufacturing or installation of asbestos-containing products, is much higher than for the general population. It is not necessary for a person to have smoked cigarettes in order to develop lung cancer as a result of asbestos exposure.
The most common lung cancer symptoms for people who have been exposed to asbestos include coughing and breathing changes. Other symptoms include persistent chest pains, shortness of breath, hoarseness and anemia.
Individuals who have worked or lived around asbestos may also develop asbestosis or silicosis. Asbestosis and silicosis are serious respiratory diseases that can be caused by exposure to asbestos or silica. Inhaled asbestos fibers and silica dust aggravate lung tissue, causing scarring which may eventually lead to these diseases.
The most common asbestosis symptoms include shortness of breath and a dry, crackling sound in the lungs when a person inhales. In its most advanced stages, asbestosis may also contribute to cardiac failure.
In some cases, an individual who has developed asbestosis or silicosis may experience no noticeable symptoms. Currently, there are no effective treatments to reverse the scarring in lung tissue caused by inhaling asbestos or silica. These diseases can be extremely disabling or, in the most serious cases, even fatal.