Asbestos exposure wreaks havok on lungs, raises cancer risk

May 21, 2010 

The asbestos to which the teens working for Firm Build allegedly were exposed may not affect them now, but according to experts the future could be iffy.

Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, has fibers that are almost like needles, according to Dr. Sunit Patel, a Merced pulmonologist and critical care specialist.

"The fibers can go along the lining of the lungs and penetrate the lungs half inside and half outside," he said.

Patel said asbestos fibers can cause scarring in the lungs, which causes shortness of breath. It can cause a fluid collection between the lung and the chest wall.

And then there's cancer.

Patel said asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung. Studies have shown that mesothelioma, for which there is no cure, is almost exclusively seen in people exposed to asbestos.

"This cancer can take at least 15 years to show up," Patel said.

Asbestos exposure can come in a variety of forms. One way is to be exposed at a low level for extended periods of time. The other common way to be exposed is through a short period of time, but with heavy exposure in that time period.

Michelle Whitmer, an editor for Asbestos.com, an international company that is dedicated to teaching people about asbestos, said once asbestos is in the lungs, the fibers can result in asbestos-related diseases.

"Specific scientific studies have indicated that children may be more susceptible to asbestos exposure," Whitmer said in an e-mail. "Those exposed during their teenage years may be at an increased risk to develop an asbestos-related disease earlier than those exposed in their 20s and 30s."

Whitmer said although it typically takes repeated and moderate-to-heavy asbestos exposure in an occupational setting over many years for a person to be at high risk of developing an asbestos-related disease, that's not always true.

"Evidence has suggested that a one-time heavy exposure could impose significant risk, depending upon a number of other risk factors," Whitmer said in the e-mail.

Patel said that if smoking is added to an exposure to asbestos, the possibility of disease climbs fast.

"If you combine the two, it's 20 to 30 times more likely a person will get a lung cancer," Patel said.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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