The lungs are composed of very sensitive tissue that can be scarred from exposure to toxins, even indirectly. Just as dust from coal miners’ clothing can blacken the lungs of family members, and secondhand smoke from cigarettes causes even more damage than primary smoke, researchers are discovering that asbestos has the same dangerous secondhand effect.
Initially, many people believed that it was primarily men who were susceptible to asbestos-related health issues. This is because traditional careers that handled asbestos, such as construction workers, pipe fitters, electricians, plumbers, and other construction, shipping, and automotive industry jobs went to men instead of women.
The reason that asbestos had such an all-encompassing reach to many different industries is due to its number of helpful characteristics. Asbestos is a member of the silicate family of minerals. Silicates tend to have highly insulating properties. For instance, silicates are resistant to heat, flame, chemicals, and electricity. Additionally, it is not very susceptible to biodegradation. Also, asbestos itself is known for its high tensile strength and flexibility, which adds to its appeal.
Sadly, though, we now know that asbestos is a human carcinogen. Besides mesothelioma and lung, colorectal, throat, esophageal, gastrointestinal, and kidney cancers, it has also been linked to asbestosis, pleural effusions, and pleural plaques. Thankfully, it has been mostly banned or at least phased out. However, many people were exposed to asbestos before the ban in the late 1980s came into effect. We are learning that a surprising number of women were exposed to asbestos as well.
The problem with asbestos is that it is able to break into microscopic fibers that cling to clothing, hair, and shoes, which can then be taken home. When the clothing is disturbed, such as taken off for the laundry, the particles can be stirred into the air where people at home can be exposed to asbestos. Additionally, some people are more sensitive to asbestos than others, so even a simple “welcome home” hug could transfer asbestos fibers from a man’s clothing to his wife. Because the rate of women diagnosed with mesothelioma is increasing, researchers think that this secondhand, home exposure is the cause.
Now, workers who may come into contact with asbestos, such as construction workers who do renovation projects, should always wear protective clothing that is left at work and laundered in well-regulated area or thrown away. This way, it can protect the people left at home form accidental, secondhand asbestos exposure.