Posted on: 1 August 2017Share
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral commonly used as building material in many parts of the world. The mineral has long, thin fibres which cannot be seen when they float in the air. The fibres can therefore be inhaled easily and become lodged in the lungs.
Why asbestos exposure is dangerous
Asbestos has been proven to be a cancer-causing material. When high level of the material is inhaled over a long period of time, they build up in the lungs and cause inflammation and scarring of lung tissue. Eventually they lead to breathing problems and may cause diseases such as asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Symptoms and signs of asbestos related diseases
It may take decades after exposure to asbestos before symptoms and signs begin to appear. The actual mode of presentation depends on the disease it has caused and the extent of damage to the lungs. People with pleural plaque may have no symptoms, but when fluid develops on one side of the lungs it may cause chest pain.
Asbestosis causes dry cough and shortness of breath on exertion. Those with mesothelioma may also have chest pain and breathing difficulties. Lung cancer could present with a persistent cough that progressively worsens, and it may be associated with unexplained loss of weight, chest pain and coughing up blood.
If you have been exposed to asbestos, your doctor will physically examine you and request that you have a range of tests. First line tests would include a sputum examination to determine if cancer cells are present in the phlegm and chest x-ray to find out if there are any signs of abnormalities in the lungs.
More definitive tests such as computed tomography scan (CT scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be ordered if chest x-ray shows any signs of abnormalities. A specialised type of blood test that estimates the concentration of a marker substance for mesothelioma can measure the extent to which the disease is present. More invasive procedures such as thoracoscopy and mediastinoscopy may be requested if necessary.
Thoracoscopy involves the insertion of a thin tube into the chest through a small cut made between two ribs to see the chest wall. This also enables tiny samples of tissue to be taken for examination. Mediastinoscopy involves making a small incision above the sternum to view lymph nodes. The list of tests is not exhaustive, additional tests to assess respiratory function may be ordered to determine the extent of lung disease.
Importance of asbestos testing in Australia
According to the Australian Department of Health, asbestos cement materials have been in use for the manufacture of residential building materials in Australia since the mid-1940s.
They were only phased out in favour of asbestos-free products in the 1980s, and it was not until December 2003 that they were completely banned. This implies that houses built in Australia before the 1990s are likely to have asbestos-containing products and should be tested.
Australian householders living in houses built before 1990 may be at risk of exposure to asbestos fibres especially if they have been engaged in unsafe handling of asbestos during accidental damage of the material in the home. Non-occupational exposure generally carries a much lower risk than asbestos exposed workers. Persons with previous occupational exposure can obtain doctor's advice on the need for assessment and further testing.