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Marquette University Asbestos Management Program

Health Effects of Asbestos

Considering the indestructible nature of asbestos fibers, the human body is unable to break down or remove them once inhaled. These microscopic fibers become lodged in lung or body tissue and remain in place where they can cause disease. 

There are three primary diseases associated with asbestos exposure:

Asbestosis is a serious, chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease. Inhaled asbestos fibers aggravate lung tissues, which cause them to scar. Symptoms include shortness of breath and a dry crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling.  In its advanced stages, the disease may cause cardiac failure. There is no effective treatment for asbestosis; the disease is usually disabling or fatal.  Those who renovate or demolish buildings that contain asbestos may be at significant risk, depending on the nature of the exposure and precautions taken.

Lung Cancer causes the largest number of deaths related to asbestos exposure. The incidence of lung cancer in people who are directly involved in the mining, milling, manufacturing and use of asbestos and its products is much higher than in the general population. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are coughing and a change in breathing. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent chest pains, hoarseness, and anemia.  People who have been exposed to asbestos and are also exposed to some other carcinogen -- such as cigarette smoke -- have a significantly greater risk of developing lung cancer than people who have only been exposed to asbestos.  One study found that asbestos workers who smoke are about 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer than people who neither smoke nor have been exposed to asbestos.

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that most often occurs in the thin membrane lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen, and (rarely) heart. About 200 cases are diagnosed each year in the United States.  Virtually all cases of mesothelioma are linked with asbestos exposure. People who work in asbestos mines, asbestos mills and factories, and shipyards that use asbestos, as well as people who manufacture and install asbestos insulation, have an increased risk of mesothelioma.

 

Determining Factors

Three things seem to determine your likelihood of developing one of these asbestos related diseases:

  1. The amount and duration of exposure - the more you are exposed to asbestos and the more fibers that enter your body, the more likely you are to develop asbestos related problems.  While there is no "safe level" of exposure, people who are exposed more frequently over a long period of time are more at risk
  2. Whether or not you smoke - if you smoke and you have been exposed to asbestos, you are far more likely to develop lung cancer than someone who does not smoke and who has not been exposed to asbestos. If you work with asbestos or have been exposed to it, the first thing you should do to reduce your chances of developing cancer is to stop smoking.
  3. Age - cases of mesothelioma have occurred in the children of asbestos workers whose only exposures were from the dust brought home on the clothing of family members who worked with asbestos. The younger people are when they inhale asbestos, the more likely they are to develop mesothelioma. This is why enormous efforts are being made to prevent school children from being exposed.

Since each exposure to asbestos increases the body burden of asbestos fibers, it is very important to reduce and minimize your exposure.

 


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Mission Statement

The Risk Unit is responsible for evaluating loss exposures, assessing liability, handling claims, promoting internal controls and developing effective safety and health programs. The corporate and student insurance plans are managed by this unit.