Asbestos is responsible for over 4500 deaths every year. Younger people, if routinely exposed to asbestos fibres over time, are at greater risk of developing asbestos-related disease than older workers. This is due to the time it takes for the body to develop symptoms after exposure to asbestos (latency). Exposure to asbestos can cause four main diseases:
- Mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lungs; it is always fatal and is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos)
- Asbestos-related lung cancer (which is almost always fatal)
- Asbestosis (a scarring of the lungs which is not always fatal but can be a very debilitating disease, greatly affecting quality of life)
- Diffuse pleural thickening (a thickening of the membrane surrounding the lungs which can restrict lung expansion leading to breathlessness.)
It can take anywhere between 15-60 years for any symptoms to develop after exposure, so these diseases will not affect you immediately but may do later in life. You need to start protecting yourself against any exposure to asbestos now because the effect is cumulative.
Asbestos was a widely used material within commercial buildings, homes and machinery until 1999, when it was banned. This means that asbestos is common in the general environment. However, working directly with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) can give personal exposures to airborne asbestos that are much higher than normal environmental levels. Repeated occupational exposures can give rise to a substantial cumulative exposure over time. This will increase the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease in the future.
The majority of the current fatal cases from asbestos exposure are associated with very high exposures from past industrial processes and installation of asbestos products.