Why asbestos is so damaging to health

Article

25 September, 2007

Asbestos related disease is caused by the inhaling of asbestos. It is known to be responsible for more occupational related deaths than any other cause. In the UK alone, 1800 people die each year from mesolthelioma, and Doctors believe the figures have yet to peak.

It is anticipated that deaths from mesothelioma will peak at approximately 2400 a year by 2013 and fall off to 500 by 2050.

Worldwide mesothelioma deaths in the next 25 years are projected to total 100,000 in the developed world alone.

What is asbestos?

It is a term applied to naturally occurring silicates which exist in fibrous form.

Asbestos has good insulating properties, and is resistant to heat, acid and alkalis as well as bodily enzymes. It was these properties which led to its wide use throughout industry.

Put at its simplest, there are 3 types of asbestos, blue, brown and white.

Blue and brown are the most dangerous because the fibres are finer and are thus able to pass through the hairs in the nose.

White is the most abundant and has been utilized up to 80% of the time in industrial processes and appears to be the least harmful. However it is commonly accepted that white asbestos is generally contaminated by the blue and brown fibres so that in terms of danger there is no real distinction in practical terms.

What was it used for?

Asbestos was used extensively in the 1970's for the insulation of walls and pipes; and also for the cladding of steel frame buildings. It was also used for fire proofing, and basically because of its resistance to heat and electricity it was used wherever friction was an issue e.g. brake and clutch linings. It was cheap and plentiful.

Who worked with Asbestos?

Historically claims in the UK have been brought by workers directly involved with asbestos - e.g. handling it as it was imported through the docks, manufacturing asbestos insulation products and using the same in the construction of buildings and ships. Those workers were heavily exposed and many died.

The focus has now changed to cases involving incidental exposure in the course of work in the trades and this is where you are most likely to see any claims arising from. This will include: local authority DLO employees such as plumbers, painters, decorators electricians, builders and general labourers involved in activities such as stripping old public buildings such as town halls, schools and hospitals, and even older blocks of flats and other residential accommodation such as private homes and care homes.

Although the asbestos itself does not degrade, the cement or other material in which it is encased will do so over time thus releasing the fibres into the atmosphere typically when disturbed during the lagging process or working alongside those doing such work.

Asbestos and the lung

The lung has a number of natural defences against foreign bodies. These include the filtering out via nose hairs, sneezing and also coughing. Phlegm containing the foreign bodies can also be coughed up out of the lungs, or enzymes within the lungs can destroy them.

However none of these methods will work with asbestos fibres as they are too small and penetrative. Not only can they embed into the lung creating a fibrosis, but they can also penetrate though the lung into the pleura which is the membrane which covers the outside of the lung and the inside of the chest wall. This can then, in due course, lead to the development of diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. The diseases are often very short lived and extremely painful. When claims are made they attract awards often in the range of 6 figures and even upwards of £1 million.

For more information contact Siobhan Hardy

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