Asbestos risk is a legitimate concern to health and well-being when extremely fine particles become airborne and are inhaled.
What is the risk?
These respirable fibres cannot be seen with the eye, but they can enter and become lodged in the lungs, where they may stay and develop into a disease. The fibres are usually:
- less than 3 microns* in diameter and
- greater than 5 microns in length.
*(1 micron = 1/1000 of a millimetre)
The presence of asbestos materials in a building does not necessarily create a health risk. While the materials are undisturbed and in sound condition, they will not generate airborne respirable fibres or be considered an asbestos risk.
Asbestos Risk factors
The likelihood of any particular person developing an asbestos-related illness depends on a number of factors, including:
- length of time a person is exposed to airborne asbestos fibres
- concentration or levels of asbestos in the air breathed
- individual susceptibility
- size and type of asbestos fibres
- influence of other factors, especially cigarette smoke. (Research has shown that smoking significantly increases the risk of lung cancer in people who have been exposed to asbestos.)
Asbestos health effects
Current scientific and medical evidence supports the fact that simply living or working in a building containing asbestos is not dangerous as long as the asbestos is in good condition (i.e. undamaged).
The people at most at risk of exposure to asbestos fibres are those people more likely to frequently undertake repairs, renovations and other work which can generate the release of asbestos fibres into the air.
However, asbestos is only a risk to health when asbestos fibres are inhaled. Most fibres are removed from your lungs by your body’s natural defences (e.g. coughing), however some fibres can remain in the lungs.
While the risk to health increases with the number of fibres inhaled and with frequency of exposure, no safe level of asbestos exposure for lung cancer or mesothelioma has been identified. All types of asbestos can break into fibres so small that once they get into the air, they can remain airborne and be inhaled into the lungs, making it difficult for the body to remove them. This has been known to cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, pleural plaques and lung cancer.
Breathing in asbestos fibres has been linked to three asbestos related diseases, all of which can be fatal. Asbestos-related diseases take time to develop. They usually emerge at least 10 years after exposure, and sometimes as long as 50 years later. Currently there are no cures for these diseases.
A chronic lung disease that can lead to respiratory impairment and to diseases such as lung cancer. Asbestosis causes widespread interstitial fibrosis (scar tissue between the alveoli, spread over the lung).
It is difficult to distinguish from other causes of interstitial fibrosis and only confirmation of exposure to asbestos or detection of unusually high numbers of asbestos fibres in the lung is considered conclusive evidence of this disease.
A cancer of the lining of the pleura (outer lung lining) or of the peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity).
- It is a rare disease – incidence is 1 in every 100,000 for males and 0.3 in every 100,000 for females.
- Asbestos is not the only cause of this disease, but it is the most important cause in modern times.
- Crocidolite is the most important asbestos-related factor, but amosite, chrysotile and tremolite are also linked.
- This disease takes 20-50 years to appear, with the highest risk around 30-35 years after exposure.
- It is typically dose-related, but in rare cases has been known to occur in patients with little known occupational exposure to asbestos.
Cannot be distinguished from those cancers that are caused by other agents such as tobacco smoke.
- Lung cancer is relatively common among the general public and is the cancer most frequently associated with asbestos.
- Tumours grow and eventually obstruct airways.
- No characteristics specify a lung cancer as being caused by asbestos – we cannot distinguish a cigarette lung cancer from an asbestos lung cancer or another lung cancer.
- Smoking multiplies by 10 the risk of death due to lung cancer for asbestos workers.