Steps to Take If You’ve Been Exposed to Asbestos
There is no reason to panic if you suddenly discover you have been exposed to asbestos, the toxic mineral that has been definitively linked to several serious health issues.
There is good reason to stay vigilant.
While asbestos exposure can lead to a variety of respiratory illnesses, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer, the odds still are against developing an asbestos-related disease.
No amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe, but getting sick from a chance encounter is unlikely to happen. It’s extremely rare.
The typical diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease stems from prolonged occupational exposure many years before. Millions of Americans each year are exposed to asbestos, but only a small percentage has serious problems as a result.
Whatever your exposure level, though, there are things you should know, and things you can do to put your mind at ease.
Early detection of an asbestos-related disease is vital to ensure the best possible treatment outcome. Pay attention to what your body is telling you.
“If we catch it early enough, it’s something we can really help people with,” said thoracic surgeon and asbestos-disease specialist Dr. Rodney Landreneau of Pittsburgh. “We can make a huge difference. Therapies are much more effective today. But you have to catch these diseases early.”
Asbestos-related disease presents some symptoms that can lead to early detection if recognized. Although these symptoms often mirror those of less serious health problems, do not ignore them if they persist.
Be aware. Anyone with a background that includes past occupational exposure in the U.S. Navy and shipyards or the oil, manufacturing and construction industries should pay close attention to flu-like symptoms that linger a long time.
Early symptoms of asbestos diseases will include:
- Dry, hacking cough
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness or pain in the chest
- Unexplained weight loss
“If these symptoms don’t go away in a couple weeks after taking antibiotics, don’t sit at home and try to be a hero,” Landreneau said. “Don’t just blow off the symptoms. Make sure your doctor doesn’t, either. Ask for an X-ray to start. It could be something more serious.”
These symptoms could mean a chronic inflammatory condition known as a pleural plaque, which is a thickening of the lining around the lungs. Although not cancerous, it’s typical of significant past exposure to asbestos. And that means an increased risk of mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer.
If an X-ray and a CT scan confirm the pleural plaques, it becomes something to closely monitor through diagnostic procedures at a specialty center. Pay attention and get regular check-ups.
It can take anywhere from 20-50 years after first exposure to asbestos before mesothelioma cancer is diagnosed. It is a rare and aggressive cancer that strikes an estimated 3,000 people in the U.S. annually.
Although the use of asbestos products has dropped significantly in recent years, the threat of exposure still remains. More than 2,000 different products containing asbestos were once produced. Many are still with us.
The ubiquitous use of asbestos throughout much of the 20th century remains with us today, particularly in older commercial and residential structures. Those working in the renovation or remodeling business should take precautions to avoid exposure.
If you discover you’ve been exposed, just be vigilant in monitoring your health.
Tim Povtak is a content writer for The Mesothelioma Center and Asbestos.com, an informational source for mesothelioma patients and families.