Asbestos is a material that people have used as insulation since the Industrial Revolution. There are strong associations between asbestos and certain types of cancer, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, which is a type of cancer that affects the mesothelial cells.
According to the American Cancer Society, several expert agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have classified asbestos as a carcinogen, which is a substance that causes cancer.
In this article, we discuss what asbestos is and its connection to lung cancer and mesothelioma. We also look at how people can avoid asbestos and what they can do if they have exposure to it.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of minerals consisting mainly of oxygen and silicon, which occur naturally as bundles of fibers.
There are two main types of asbestos. The first is amphibole asbestos, which consists of straight, needle-like fibers. The second is chrysotile asbestos, which comprises fibers that curl and wrap around each other in a spiral.
Chrysotile asbestos is the most common type of asbestos that people use in industrial settings.
People previously used asbestos to insulate materials, including homes, textiles, parts of cars, and factories, due to its resistance to heat and many chemicals.
Now that researchers have determined the effects of inhaling asbestos and its links to cancer, it is much less common in modern materials. However, older buildings and other settings may still contain harmful amounts of the substance, and heavy use of asbestos continues in some countries.
Can it cause lung cancer?
Studies on both animals and humans have shown that asbestos exposure can increase a person’s risk of developing lung cancer.
When people inhale asbestos fibers, they can adhere to mucus in the:
- trachea, or windpipe
- bronchi, which are the breathing tubes in the lungs
Some fibers can reach the outer lining of the chest wall and lungs, which is called the pleura, and the small airways of the lungs.
In these areas, they can irritate the cells, which can lead to lung cancer or mesothelioma.
Lung cancer occurs when cells in the lungs divide uncontrollably, which causes tumors to grow. The tumors can affect a person’s ability to breathe, and they can spread to other parts of the body.
Lung cancer can be fatal, but certain treatments, alongside earlier diagnosis, are improving the outlook for people with this disease.
Typically, the risk of lung cancer increases with greater exposure to asbestos.
Most cases of lung cancer in those with a history of exposure to asbestos occur 15 or more years after the first exposure to the substance.
Smoking is also a risk factor for lung cancer. The American Cancer Society note that those who smoke and also have exposure to asbestos have a risk of lung cancer that is even higher than adding the risks from the two separate factors.
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