How Asbestos Causes Disease
Asbestos is a term for a material consisting of a variety of fibers that is commonly found in workplaces where mining, manufacturing, and installing products occurs. Exposure to asbestos is also known for causing three diseases: asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
This life-threatening disease is caused by asbestos fibers that can become lodged in the lungs, causing the development of scar tissue in and around the chest cavity. Scar tissue is thick and not very flexible, so it makes breathing very painful.
Symptoms of asbestosis include the following:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chronic coughing
- Chest pain
The inhalation of asbestos can also cause lung cancer, which starts in the lining of the bronchi. Like all asbestos diseases, lung cancer is not usually detected until many years after the initial asbestos exposure.
While abnormal cells may begin to appear in the bronchi immediately following exposure, the symptoms generally take much longer to develop. In the meantime, abnormal cells become cancerous.
Important statistics regarding lung cancer include the following:
- Employees with a long history of exposure to asbestos are three to four times more likely to develop lung cancer than workers who have never been exposed to it
- If employees who are exposed to asbestos in the workplace and also smoke, they increase the likelihood of lung cancer by 50 to 100 percent
Asbestos fibers cause mesothelioma by entering the pleural cavity and invading the fragile tissue that lines this cavity (the mesothelium). There are currently two theories as to how asbestos causes this cancer. The theories consist of the following two ideas:
- The fibers flow through the pleural cavity and irritate the tissues. The irritated cells form scar tissue, and the mesothelial cells scar in response. This immune response becomes uncontrollable as the scar cells continue to be produced.
- The fibers come into contact with separate mesothelial cells and interfere with their division. The part of the DNA that controls cell reproduction is destroyed, so cells begin to reproduce uncontrollably.
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