Breathing in air, which contains asbestos dust, can lead to asbestos related diseases, which at best can have a very debilitating effect on the health, and at worst are fatal.
The human body does have a clearance mechanism to deal with dust. Large particles are coughed up in phlegm, and small particles, which do reach the air sacs inside the lungs, are removed by white blood cells (macrophages), which move about the lungs and 'swallow' dust particles.
However, the problem with asbestos relates to its durability inside the human body. If asbestos fibres are less than a certain diameter, they may be small enough to penetrate the airs sacs, and if they are above a certain length, they may be too long to be engulfed and swallowed by the macrophage.
The diseases associated with Asbestos are:
There are currently well over 1,000 deaths each year attributable to a type of cancer called 'mesothelioma'. Mesothelioma was once a very rare form of cancer, but it is now seen regularly, and almost always associated with exposure to asbestos. Medical experts now confirm that this asbestos-related cancer is becoming a more widespread problem in the UK than was originally ever considered.
Mesothelioma generally affects the outer covering of the lung, and once it begins to take hold, it effectively 'squashes' the lung, making breathing difficult and painful. It is inoperable, incurable, and death usually follows within a matter of months after diagnosis.
There is often a long delay between first exposure to asbestos and the onset of an asbestos related disease. This can vary between 15-60 years, but it is important to note that the degree of exposure necessary to cause mesothelioma is considerably less than that associated with asbestosis and lung cancer.
Until recently it was believed
that people who contracted an asbestos-related disease had been regularly
exposed to large amounts of asbestos dust. However, the exact scale of
risk at lower levels of exposure is unknown. It is now thought that repeated
low-level exposure can have a cumulative effect, resulting in asbestos-related
disease, and that even occasional high exposure to asbestos dust can also
lead to these diseases.