Low levels of asbestos fibres are present in the air so most people are exposed to very small amounts of asbestos as they go about their daily lives and do not develop asbestos-related health problems.
Finding that your home or workplace has asbestos-containing materials does not mean your health is at risk. Studies have shown that these products, if in sound condition and left undisturbed, are not a significant health risk.
However where asbestos-containing products are broken, damaged or weathered, fibres can be released posing a risk to health.
Asbestos is also hazardous in materials such as pipe lagging and sprayed roof insulation where fibres are not bound tightly. A higher concentration of these fibres are more likely to be released into the atmosphere if disturbed or removed without taking the appropriate precautions.
People may be exposed to asbestos in their workplace, their communities, or their homes. If products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny asbestos fibers are released into the air. When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long time. Over time, these fibers can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems.
Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The risk of contracting these diseases increases with the number of fibres inhaled. People who get health problems from inhaling asbestos have usually been exposed to high levels of asbestos over a long period. The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos.
People who have suffered health effects from exposure to asbestos have generally worked in either the asbestos mining or milling industry or worked in industries involved in making or installing asbestos products.
Family members of workers heavily exposed to asbestos may also be at risk of asbestos-related diseases. This risk is thought to result from exposure to asbestos fibers brought into the home on the shoes, clothing, skin, and hair of workers.
If you think you have been exposed to asbestos, you should contact your GP as health monitoring may be required.
You will not require health monitoring if your exposure was an incidental exposure, that is if you were exposed to a low level of asbestos dust for a short period of time (for example, when a bystander is present when a worker disturbs asbestos containing material and asbestos fibres become airborne).
Anyone who is exposed to asbestos can register their suspected exposure through the National Asbestos Exposure Register.
There are four major asbestos-related diseases. A person may show signs of more than one of these diseases.
Pleural disease, plaques and effusion
Pleural disease is a non-malignant disease that scars the pleura (the thin membrane lining the lung and chest cavity). The condition typically arises 20 to 30 years after exposure.
Pleural plaques are areas of fibrous thickening on the pleura and are often the earliest sign of exposure to asbestos although not everyone who has been exposed to asbestos develops plaques (this may be due to difference in immune responses).
Pleural plaques are benign and they do not become cancerous over time. Having pleural plaques does not necessarily mean that you will develop a more serious asbestos-related disease however as their presence indicates exposure to asbestos there may be an increased risk of a more serious disease.
People with pleural plaques as their only asbestos-related symptom usually have very little impairment to their lung function. However if a pleural effusion – an abnormal build-up of fluid between the lungs and chest cavity – develops, people may experience breathing difficulties as the fluid can cause pressure on the lungs.
Symptoms: Symptoms are rare and the condition is typically diagnosed following an imaging scan often for an unrelated reason.
Asbestosis a chronic chest disease caused by inhalation of high concentrations of asbestos fibres. The condition can develop 10 to 20 years after initial exposure. Asbestos fibres initially damage cell membranes in the lungs and, as a result, the lung tissue becomes hardened and scars.
Symptoms: Shortness of breath after exercise, persistent coughing, chest pain, phlegm, lung infections, pulmonary hypertension and heart failure.
Early abnormalities of asbestosis are difficult to detect in a lung X-ray, however, as the disease progresses the X-ray is characterised by a cloudy, ground glass appearance.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the tissue that lines the body cavities, particularly in the chest and abdominal regions. It can result from low-level exposure to asbestos and can take 30 to 45 years to develop after initial exposure. It is an aggressive and painful cancer, and sufferers rarely live longer than 12 to 18 months following diagnosis.
In Australia, about 90% of all mesothelioma patients have a confirmed history of significant asbestos exposure.
Symptoms: A dull, aching chest pain and shortness of breath are the early symptoms, followed by abdominal pain, abdominal swelling and loss of weight.
See: Mesothelioma in Australia - Australian Institute for Health and Welfare
Lung cancer of the bronchial tubes, lungs and alveoli can develop after exposure to asbestos. Risk of developing lung cancer is increased in people who have been exposed to asbestos and who smoke or have a pre-existing lung disease.
Symptoms: Irritative cough with increasing sputum, followed by blood-tinged sputum, coughing up blood, chest pains and chest infections.
South Australia has a number of organisations that provide support services to those diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease and their families.