Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral first used by the Greeks and Romans in clothes and building materials. The American asbestos industry started to take off after World War II and reached its peak in the 1970s when asbestos was used in more than 4,000 different products. The extreme popularity of asbestos was due to its versatility and relatively inexpensive manufacturing costs.
Asbestos is composed of long, thin fibers that naturally occur in the form of a compressed, solid mass. There are six different types of asbestos, which are sorted into two separate categories. The first category, amphilole, includes types of asbestos characterized by long straight fibers. Five of the six types of asbestos fall under this category: amosite, crocidolite, actinolite, anthophyllite, tremolite. Serpentine, the second category, includes chrysotile, a type of asbestos characterized by curly fiber structure. Only three types of asbestos are found in the United States: chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite.
Asbestosis, also known as diffuse pulmonary fibrosis, is an extremely debilitating and potentially fatal disease caused by asbestos exposure. Unlike
mesothelioma, asbestosis usually develops when a person is exposed to high levels of asbestos over a prolonged period of time. When asbestos is inhaled into the lungs, the fibers eventually collect in the alveoli, which are the tiny sacs in the lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged between the lungs and bloodstream. Fibrous scar tissue begins to build up in the lungs, eventually becoming so severe that the lungs cannot supply the body with sufficient oxygen. Although asbestosis is not a cancer, it can be just as deadly as mesothelioma. The excess scar tissue may lead to heart failure or severe respiratory problems and even death.
Asbestosis is difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are not unique to the disease. In fact, asbestosis symptoms are often associated with very common health problems like obesity and emphysema. The most common symptoms of asbestosis are chest pain, shortness of breath, dry cough, and coughing spasms. Asbestosis subsequently weakens the body's immune system, making the sufferer more susceptible to contracting secondary diseases such as pneumonia.
There is no known cure for asbestosis. As the disease progresses, the network of scar tissue continues to accumulate in the lungs and become more complex, which makes early detection essential to effective treatment of the disease. Physicians treating a patient with asbestos focus primarily on preventative measures and relief of immediate symptoms. Patients are advised to immediately eliminate exposure to asbestos, quit smoking, and avoid large crowds where they could contract secondary diseases. The coughing and shortness of breath are often treated with supplemental oxygen, humidifiers, or breathing therapies.