The toxicity of asbestos is nothing new. Some of its earliest effects on health were recorded in 61 to 114 A.D. by Pliny the Younger, a Roman judge and politician who noted that slaves exposed to asbestos became sick. However, it was not until 1906 when the first asbestos-related death was documented. Asbestos has been considered a banned substance since late 2003 but it still exists in many older homes and commercial buildings. Learn what to do if you were exposed to asbestos at work to protect yourself and receive the help you need.
What is Asbestos and Why Is It Dangerous?
Asbestos is a type of silicate that occurs naturally. It is made up of long, fibrous crystals that make it ideal as an insulating material for buildings. Asbestos absorbs sound, resists heat, chemical damage and fire, and does not conduct electricity.
The problem with asbestos is that it can be inhaled. Its thin fibers are small enough to enter the body through the nose and the mouth. The fibers could get trapped in the soft mucous membranes found in the nose and the throat, or they could travel farther down to the lungs. If they are swallowed, they could even reach the digestive tract.
Asbestos fibers are not digestible and cannot be dissolved within the body. Once these fibers become lodged in the tissues of the throat and lungs, they can cause serious diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma and other types of cancers that affect the throat and gastrointestinal system. These conditions are not only difficult and expensive to treat because of their chronic nature, they can also be fatal.
Have You Been Exposed?
Although asbestos is easy to identify if used by itself, it is often mixed with other building materials including cement, so it is often difficult to know if your building has it or not. What is likely is that certain areas of a building may contain asbestos if the structure was built before 2000. It is often found in insulation, boilers, ceiling tiles and other parts of the structure that have been sprayed with certain types of coating for fire insulation.
If you have been exposed or believe you may have been exposed to asbestos at work, it is critical that you take action immediately. Talk to a medical professional for a proper physical checkup and diagnosis. Do not wait for symptoms to appear because it is likely that you will not feel or observe anything right away. Keep in mind that any symptoms associated with a disease caused by asbestos may only appear 10 to 15 years after your exposure. Your doctor will be able to determine if you have been exposed or not based on observable symptoms and test results.
Depending on the diagnosis, the doctor may require regular checkups and tests to help determine the extent of a disease (if present) or its progress. Vaccines to help protect you from infections such as pneumonia and influenza may also be required. If you have a smoking habit, you will be asked to stop to reduce your risk of developing lung cancer.
You may also talk to your supervisor and manager or to your union officers regarding your concerns. Employers are required by OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) to implement safety measures to protect their employees’ health. Depending on your case, you may be eligible for medical and financial help, including Medicare coverage and workers’ compensation programs from your employer or other government agencies. If your employer, owner of the building, contractor or subcontractor has failed to protect you and other employees from the hazards of asbestos exposure in the workplace, you may also want to consider filing a lawsuit to receive compensation and other financial support.