Part I: What to Do If You Are Exposed to Asbestos

doctor holding a chest x-ray

If you think you have been exposed to asbestos, you will need to be sure the exposure has stopped and that any necessary cleanup or remediation is performed to keep people safe in the future. However, there are also significant health concerns after an exposure to asbestos.

Possible Medical Consequences from Asbestos Exposure

The three main diseases that can result from asbestos exposure are:

  • Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a rare, fatal cancer of the thin linings around internal organs. Most frequently, the impacted lining is that which is around the lungs, but more rarely the linings of the abdomen, heart or testicles may be impacted.
  • Lung Cancer: The risk of lung cancer from exposure to asbestos increases dramatically for those who also smoke.
  • Asbestosis: A noncancerous, but devastating lung disease involving severe scarring of lung tissue.

According to the American Cancer Society, there is clear evidence that asbestos exposure and cancer of the ovaries and larynx or voice box are also linked. Less conclusively, there may be a heightened risk of these other kinds of cancer: stomach, colon, rectum and throat.

Other medical problems involving the lining around the lungs, called the pleura, include plaque buildup, pleural thickening and fluid buildup between the lining and the lungs.

What makes medical care challenging is that in many cases it can take many years after asbestos exposure for these diseases to develop, even decades.

Assess the Risk

The American Cancer Society says that a very short or very small exposure does not present a high risk of disease. On the other hand, if exposure was long term or at a higher level, you should take steps to respond medically. The Society advises:

  • Stop smoking as soon as possible.
  • Consult a physician who has worked with patients suffering from asbestos-related illnesses. Ask him or her to advise whether you should have ongoing monitoring, which may include CT scans and chest x-rays. Sometimes lung-function testing is also advised.
  • Watch for and report to your medical provider symptoms that could indicate development of one of these diseases: unexplained weight loss, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, problematic coughing, trouble breathing and coughing up blood.
  • Get treatment for respiratory diseases quickly and inquire whether you should be vaccinated against pneumonia or the flu.

We will discuss care of the environment after a release in our next part.