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What is the Link Between Asbestos and Cancer?

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  • Written By: Donn Saylor
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2016
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The link between asbestos and cancer is the presence of the silicate compound's fibers in the lungs. Studies have shown that asbestos exposure is a key cause of many types of cancer, including mesothelioma, throat cancer, and lung cancer. When the tiny fibers of asbestos are breathed in, they become lodged in the lungs and cause inflammation and scarring, potentially leading to a diagnosis of carcinoma.

Asbestos is comprised of silicon and oxygen atoms. It is a naturally occurring substance that develops in clusters of threads. These threads are minute and resilient, and they possess chemical-, fire-, and heat-resistant properties. Asbestos also conducts no electricity. As a result, it has been used since the 19th century in the automotive, construction, and shipbuilding industries.

In the 1970s, the first evidence emerged that asbestos and cancer occurrences may be related. This fact has since been scientifically established, and the use of asbestos is prohibited in many areas of the world. It is officially recognized as a carcinogen by the governing medical authorities of several countries.

When asbestos is inhaled, large amounts of fibers are immediately exhaled, but some naturally get trapped in the lungs. These fibers are not able to leave the body and remain in place for the duration of an individual's life. If there is sufficient asbestos buildup, the lungs become compromised and the conditions have then been laid for a possible cancer diagnosis.

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The connection between asbestos and cancer is not experienced to the same extent by everyone who has been exposed to asbestos. The vast majority of people in the Western world have been exposed to asbestos just by being in a building that was constructed with the material. The individuals who possess the greatest risk of developing cancer have been exposed for significant lengths of time, repeatedly over a period of time, or at high levels of concentration.

The effects of asbestos and cancer are typically not immediate. For instance, most mesothelioma diagnoses occurred some 30 years after patients were first exposed to asbestos. Well after an individual has been exposed to the carcinogen, the fibers already in the lungs may continue to do damage, resulting in health complications further down the road. Asbestos rarely wreaks its havoc quickly; it commonly takes years, if not decades, for asbestos to start producing symptoms of cancer. Exposed individuals who smoke or have already been diagnosed with another type of lung disease have a highly elevated risk of developing cancer.

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