Inhaling or ingesting asbestos poses a significant health threat, but problems may not manifest for decades.
Health experts say owners of older homes who tackle their own major remodeling projects or hire contractors not well versed in proper asbestos safety practices could be inadvertently exposing themselves to asbestos. Unfortunately, anyone who inhales or ingests enough asbestos to develop a serious health condition may not know for 20 or more years.
Who’s at risk of asbestos exposure?
Certain tradespeople are at significant risk of asbestos exposure due to the nature of their work. But Dr. Khalil Diab, a pulmonologist with IU Health in Indianapolis, says he worries about home renovation DIYers who may be exposing themselves to asbestos materials over prolonged periods of time in homes built in the 1970s or earlier.
“Precautions should be taken,” Diab says, especially with large projects that may take weeks or months to complete, such as extensive floor tiling, changing all of the pipes, installing roof shingles or working directly with insulation materials. “There was a lot of asbestos in these old houses.”
All asbestos-related ailments occur because, unlike other airborne particles, asbestos fibers are small enough to subvert the lungs’ natural filtration system and imbed themselves in bodily tissues, where they cause inflammation and scarring, Diab says.
Asbestos fibers are microscopic, adds Dr. Vincent Lem, a pulmonologist with St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, explaining that 1,200 asbestos fibers are as thick as one strand of human hair. “Something that fine will stay suspended in the air for a long time,” he says.
Which diseases are linked to asbestos?
Asbestos is linked to several life-threatening diseases, such as mesothelioma (an asbestos-related cancer), asbestosis and lung cancer.
Mesothelioma is a cancer that most often attacks the chest and abdomen.
Dr. Louis Libby, a pulmonologist with The Oregon Clinic in Portland, Oregon, says mesothelioma patients experience severe chest pain and shortness of breath, even if they don’t have a persistent cough.
Patients in the early stages of mesothelioma are easily winded, Lem says. "They can’t walk upstairs without having shortness of breath. It’s a horrible cancer to deal with,” he says.
Research shows that most mesothelioma patients die within a year of diagnosis, primarily because the cancer isn't discovered until it has reached the advanced stage. When discovered earlier, aggressive treatment may prolong life, but most patients die within five years.
Asbestosis can develop when a person breathes in high levels of asbestos over time. Asbestos fibers lodge deep in the lungs, causing irritation that can lead to scarring in the lungs.
Asbestosis symptoms include coughing, swelling in the neck or face, and difficulty swallowing. As the disease worsens, patients’ breathing can resemble a crackling sound. The only known cure for asbestosis is a lung transplant, Diab says. An asbestosis diagnosis typically leads to death within five to 10 years, Libby says.
Depending on the stage of the condition, more treatment options exist for patients with asbestosis. Life expectancy diminishes, however, if the patient develops other serious and life-threatening conditions, such as mesothelioma.
Lung cancer is also an increased risk for workers who’ve been exposed to asbestos fiber inhalation — especially for those who also smoke. Smoking always increases the risk of developing lung cancer, Libby says. If you smoke and inhale or ingest asbestos, your risk of developing lung cancer increases 70 percent, Lem says.
Another condition that can result from asbestos exposure is pleural plaquing, which affects the outer lining of the lungs. Libby says pleural plaque is benign and asymptomatic, but it’s often detected during a CT scan.
Significant or prolonged asbestos exposure also increases the risk of other ailments, Lem says, such as kidney disease, gallbladder, throat and ovarian cancer. “It can circulate around your body once it gets in," he explains. “Over time, the irritation from fibers is what causes all the problems.”
How can I protect myself from asbestos exposure?
If your home was built before 1979, asbestos could be behind a wall, under the flooring, or wrapped around a pipe. If you encounter any white material while renovating, get the material tested before disturbing or removing, Lem says.
If a contractor you hired is renovating a very old home by removing plaster walls, the original tile flooring or a heating or electrical system, Diab advises homeowners to leave the house until that section is renovated and make sure the contractor follows property safety practices. “If there’s a lot of dust, asbestos fibers could be inhaled in that case,” he says.
Contractors and other people who work in environments where asbestos is prevalent can lower risks to their health by wearing protective coverings, Diab and Lem say. They also should not eat or drink in their work area, and store their work clothes and shoes at the job site.
“You don’t want to transfer the asbestos to your car or home,” Lem says.
Given the risk, Lem says workers in the trades should inform their doctor if their occupation exposes them to high levels of asbestos for a prolonged period of time. He says a chest X-ray can detect asbestos exposure in 80 percent of those tested.
Regular exercise can help too, Diab says. Even asbestos-exposed people, who lead an otherwise healthy lifestyle, can lower their risk of developing cancer in the digestive system, which may have been compromised by ingesting asbestos.
Additional sources: Asbestos.com, Mesothelioma.com, The Mayo Clinic, Cancer.org, The Agency for Toxic Substance & Disease Registry.