Can a Single Exposure to Asbestos Cause Cancer?
Asbestos is classified as a known human carcinogen by multiple national and international government agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization. In addition to lung cancer and mesothelioma, whose correlation with this toxic mineral is supported by multiple reputable medical studies, there are other forms of cancer which have recently been linked to asbestos, including laryngeal, ovarian, and gastrointestinal cancer.
The hazardous nature of asbestos is undeniable. According to the Environmental Working Group, between 12,000 and 15,000 people in the U.S. lose their lives to asbestos-related diseases every year. You may be exposed to asbestos in multiple ways throughout your life. Although asbestos has been widely used by numerous industries all across the country until the 1980s, when stricter regulations were finally enforced, millions of houses built with asbestos-containing products are still standing nowadays. Thus, old buildings are very likely to have asbestos in their walls, ceilings, floors, and roofs. However, when does asbestos become dangerous to your health and how much can lead to the development of cancer?
People Who Have Been Exposed to Asbestos in the Workplace Have the Highest Risk of Developing a Form of Cancer
Occupational exposure is responsible for the majority of asbestos-related cancer cases. Because they have been in regular contact with tremendous levels of asbestos over the course of several years, thousands of people who worked in industries such as the chemical industry, the construction industry, and the oil refining industry are now struggling with cancer. Most asbestos victims were exposed to the carcinogenic mineral between the 1940s and the 1980s, when asbestos was employed by an astounding number of companies throughout the U.S. Since all asbestos-related diseases develop within 20 to 50 years, it was not until recently that they were diagnosed.
Employees were not required to wear protective equipment, as asbestos was not formally deemed a health danger. Nevertheless, company executives were well-aware of the hazard but have strived to conceal it from both the laborers and the general public for their own financial profit. Thereby, people working directly with asbestos in high-risk industries have gradually inhaled and ingested a great amount of fibers which would subsequently accumulate in their lungs or abdominal cavity. As the human body cannot eliminate asbestos, fibers tend to produce severe tissue inflammation and scarring over the years, which may, in turn, lead to cancer.
What Are the Chances of Developing Cancer After a Single Exposure to Asbestos?
Asbestos exposure is far from being restricted to the workplace. There are millions of houses and public buildings with asbestos in their structure which are currently inhabited or in use, as fibers would be added in various building products, including vinyl floor tiles, roof shingles, wallboards, and insulation, to increase their strength and to fireproof them. Considering the serious health risks associated with exposure, being concerned about whether the asbestos-containing materials in your house could harm you and your family is natural. However, it is important to know that only damaged asbestos-containing products are hazardous.
Fibers of asbestos become dangerous only when they are airborne. If a product is disturbed as a result of remodeling operations, for instance, particularly if it is also old or friable, asbestos fibers could easily be released into the air and inhaled by whoever is in proximity. On the other hand, asbestos-containing building materials which have not been disturbed and are in a relatively good condition entail a very low risk of exposure. We highly advise you to postpone remodeling projects if you suspect asbestos might be present in your home. It is recommended to have a professional asbestos abatement company safely dispose of all the hazardous products before beginning remodeling operations.
Nevertheless, a single exposure to asbestos is unlikely to harm you. If you have been in contact with asbestos only once, your risk of developing serious diseases such as cancer are very low. Studies revealed that there are certain factors which influence your risk of being affected by asbestos exposure, including:
- The amount of fibers inhaled or ingested. The risk of developing cancer has been found to increase with the dose of asbestos fibers inhaled or swallowed. In other words, the more fibers reach the inside of your body, the more likely you are to be diagnosed with a disease in the future. Exposure from building materials is significantly less dangerous that occupational exposure, as the concentration of asbestos fibers in the former is lower.
- The duration of exposure. Similarly, the chances of developing cancer are higher if you have been in contact with asbestos on a regular basis. Prolonged or frequent exposure taking place over the course of several years implies a considerably higher risk than a one-time exposure.
- The source of exposure. As previously stated, people who have been regularly exposed to asbestos on the job have the highest risk in this respect. Between 2 and 10 percent of them will develop pleural mesothelioma, while many others will be affected by other malignant diseases. On the other hand, a single exposure is extremely unlikely to cause cancer.
What Symptoms Should I Be Worried About?
Asbestos exposure does not cause any immediate symptoms. Due to the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases, early signs only appear several decades after the first contact with asbestos (within 20 to 50 years). Moreover, the symptoms accompanying these illnesses are very similar to those of more common respiratory affections such as asthma, pneumonia or bronchitis. This is why it is crucial to seek medical assistance as soon as you notice any of the following signs if you have a history of asbestos exposure, even if you have only been exposed once:
- shortness of breath
- a persistent cough
- chest pain
- difficulty breathing and swallowing
- night sweats
- unintentional weight loss
If you experience any of the symptoms above, we strongly encourage you to discuss with a specialist in asbestos-related diseases who will guide you towards the appropriate tests and diagnostic procedures. Asbestos-related diseases are very complex and require a highly experienced medical professional to be correctly identified and properly evaluated. These illnesses also have rapid progress after their onset. Additionally, due to their low prevalence, most oncologists will not encounter a single asbestos victim in their entire career. For these reasons, you should only seek medical assistance from an expert.