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Though it was known in the early 1900s that inhaling asbestos particles had led to the deaths of miners, it was not until the 1970s that public health officials began warning of the risk of asbestos exposure in homes and workplaces.
Asbesto-based building materials are not hazardous when they remain intact and undisturbed, but broken during remodeling or repair work, fibers from asbestos can be released into the surrounding air. This is why the focus has been on friable asbestos. “Friable” means the material crumbles easily and breaks down into small particles that could be inhaled. Widely used products containing friable asbestos include insulation, acoustical plaster, paper products and spackling compound.
Products made from “non-friable” asbestos are tightly bound and do not easily release particles. Examples of non-friable materials include siding, floor tiles and roofing products. These can still be a risk, such as hen a non-friable material is sawed or sanded, thereby releasing small particles.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled and reach the lung’s deep air passages, they can cause serious damage. Oral ingestion of asbestos may be implicated in cancers of the larynx, esophagus, oral cavity, colon, stomach and kidney.
According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly everyone is exposed to small amounts of asbestos in the water, air and soil. People rarely become sick through this type of exposure. Those who develop health problems have generally been exposed to asbestos on a regular basis, usually through their jobs. Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will get sick, and those who do may not experience symptoms for decades.
Medical knowledge of the health effects of asbestos has come from long-term studies of people exposed in the workplace. Asbestos workers often develop “asbestosis,” an increase of scar tissue in the lungs causing the heart and lungs to provide inadequate levels of oxygen to the body. This serious disease develops 20 to 30 years after asbestos exposure.
Asbestos workers have also been shown to have an increased risk of developing mesothelioma and cancer, both generally fatal. The two diseases may show up 20 to 50 years following exposure. The younger a person is at the time of asbestos inhalation, the greater the chances of developing mesothelioma.
This article originally appeared on Angie’s List.