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Published On: Tue, May 15th, 2018

Asbestos Exposure: What You Should Do Next

Asbestos is something most recognise as a danger, but just why is it a problem, and what do you do if you’ve encountered it?

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a material that was used in many construction materials from the 40s to the 80s, mainly because it was cheap to produce and is fire-retardant. It is made up of microscopic fibres, which when disturbed, can be released into the air and inhaled where they embed into the lining of the lungs and the membranes of other organs known as the mesothelium. The body cannot remove asbestos fibres, so instead, it builds up plaques around these foreign bodies. In turn, this can lead to chest pain, shortness of breath and more advanced symptoms that ultimately lead to death.

photo/ Clker-Free-Vector-Images

Where can you be exposed?

You can be exposed to asbestos wherever it occurs naturally or in human-made materials. Its use was more prevalent in the 1940s, and it has existed in industrial settings for many decades since. More recent health and safety measures ensure that today’s workers are better protected against the risks of asbestos exposure, but this doesn’t help people who were unfortunate enough to be exposed to it in the past. During its peak, asbestos found use in home appliances, building materials, car parts and much more besides.

Consequently, anyone involved in the manufacture of these appliances, materials and parts were at risk, as well as anyone involved in their inspection or distribution; there are even examples of wives and children who have contracted asbestos-related diseases later in life as they were exposed to asbestos fibres on work clothing brought home by others. Today, many of these sources pose less of a risk, but there are still opportunities for exposure. Commonly, old buildings that contain asbestos are a risk and require strict safeguards to be in place during renovation or demolition to ensure no fibres are disturbed, or to ensure its safe removal. There have been examples of poorly run asbestos removal companies who have breached these safeguards and protocols, exposing passers-by to deadly asbestos fibres. A similar risk exists with the dumping of building materials; ceiling tiles, insulation and much more have been known to contain asbestos, so where these are damaged and dumped, there’s a chance that they may release their fibres into the surrounding air.

What should you do if you’re exposed?

If you fear you may have been exposed, it’s important that you inform your GP right away, but it’s also important not to panic. Despite the prevalence of asbestos, asbestos-related diseases are still quite rare as many people do not develop serious or life-threatening lung diseases after exposure. At the same time, noticeable symptoms do not usually appear until some 40 years later so it’s impossible to know whether or not you’ll be affected if you fear that you may have been exposed. By informing your GP, it allows for a record to be made, so that if you encounter chest pains of breathing problems in future, your doctor knows to consider asbestos exposure as a possible cause.

What tests might I need?

If you’re happy and healthy and have only just been exposed, there are no tests that can help you at this early stage. But having it noted in your medical history is important as it will allow for routine check-ups to take place to identify any abnormalities early on.

If however you fear for past asbestos exposure and you’re currently experiencing breathing difficulties, chest pain or are finding regular activities to be harder than normal, then you should consult with your doctor.

In the latter case, your breathing, oxygen levels, exercise capacity and deep sleep breathing may all be measured to develop a rounded view of your lung function. Also, you may have imaging scans and airway tests to understand breathing responses and to see whether there are any internal abnormalities. A wealth of information on lung function tests can be found at the British Lung Foundation.

The complexity of tests you undergo will depend upon your unique circumstances, so the severity of your symptoms and past working history will play a large role in determining what kinds of tests are recommended.

In all cases, it’s recommended that you do not smoke before any testing and it’s often advised that anyone experiencing breathing difficulties should give up smoking altogether. Before your tests, it’s also advised that you avoid alcohol intake and caffeine, as well as food for some hours before. You might be asked to perform a walking test too, so it’s sensible to wear comfortable clothing and suitable shoes.

What if I contract an asbestos-related disease?

Most will only learn of an asbestos-related disease after undergoing the tests above, having had the resulting news broken to them by a specialist. Often, a tailored regime of therapy and scheduled testing will be provided to relieve the symptoms and to tracks the progression of the disease. Sadly, there is no cure for diseases caused by asbestos, but there are some breathing therapies that can improve your quality of life. In some circumstances, it may also be possible for you to claim compensation to help fund your care or to provide private healthcare; this may be a possibility if your asbestos exposure occurred at an old job. To find out if you’re eligible for compensation, you’ll need to speak to a specialist asbestos solicitor.

Coping with an asbestos-related illness will be hard for you and your family, so in trying times, it’s helpful to find support. Thankfully in the UK, there are Asbestos Victims Support Groups dotted all over the country that can bring together other sufferers to talk through their challenges and to provide wider support to victims and their loved ones. Macmillan provides a list of support sources on their website.

Author: Abigail Crosbie

About the Author

- Outside contributors to the Dispatch are always welcome to offer their unique voices, contradictory opinions or presentation of information not included on the site.

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