Understanding the Connection between Lung Cancer and Asbestos

Lung cancer and asbestos are two things that many people do not automatically associate as related. For a lot of us, the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of lung cancer is cigarette smoke. And indeed, about 90 percent of lung cancers are the direct result of smoking—making tobacco the single most preventable health risk in existence, according to the World Health Organization. However, asbestos is another silent and much more obscure killer—one that many people do not even realize is there until it is too late.

Though used in other parts of the world as far back as the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s brought asbestos into mainstream use in the U.S., as American manufacturers began to discover the impressive versatility and extraordinary strength of its crystal fibers. Perhaps most valuably, asbestos was touted for its naturally heat-resistant and fireproof properties. All of these factors made asbestos an ideal choice for the manufacturing of building materials—especially insulation—as well as automobile parts, railway units and much more. Even everyday domestic goods, including hair dryers, toasters and coffeemakers, often contained asbestos.

The link between serious illnesses—like asbestosis, mesothelioma or other types of lung cancer—and asbestos was not made until the early part of the 20th century, when the medical community began to notice an inordinate number of lung-related illnesses cropping up in asbestos mining communities. Within a few years came the first asbestosis diagnosis, and by the 1950s, malignant mesothelioma—a rare but deadly form of lung cancer that affects the lining of the chest wall—had been officially identified as an asbestos-related disease.

Illness occurs as a result of damage to the organs where asbestos fibers accrue—most often, the stomach and/or lungs. They enter the body after being inhaled or swallowed, and then remain in the affected organs, potentially for the lifespan of the victim. Irritation and scarring often occur, when enough of the tiny crystals have accumulated, and eventually cause tumors to develop. Once this occurs, the diagnosis is mesothelioma.

To present a serious threat of lung cancer, asbestos materials have to first be damaged, so as to result in the diffusion of tiny fibers that appear as a harmless dust. When intact, asbestos is generally considered safe and non-concerning. However, once it is broken up, the microscopic crystals that comprise it become extremely hazardous for anyone within breathing range.

Once the connection between lung cancer and asbestos became clearly evident across the medical field, the federal government did take action to ban its use. However, the U.S. still allows some small-scale production of asbestos materials today. In addition, older buildings, ships, trains and automobiles are all likely to contain asbestos-made components—making the total elimination of asbestos exposure in the near future all but impossible.

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