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Environment and Occupational - Health effects of asbestos exposure

Asbestos exposure can lead to serious respiratory diseases, including lung cancer, asbestosis, and malignant mesothelioma.

Asbestos refers to a group of heat-resistant, fibrous minerals made of impure magnesium silicate classed into two types; serpentine (curly) or amphibole (needle-like). Chrysotile is another name for white asbestos, a curly variety. Although exposure to asbestos is now regulated in most developed countries, low levels of exposure still occur in various occupational and urban environments. The inhalation of asbestos fibres can lead to a number of severe respiratory diseases, including lung cancer, asbestosis, and malignant mesothelioma (NIH; Health Canada). Scar tissue around the lungs known as benign pleural plaques, and effusions or abnormal fluid around the lungs while not normally fatal still  pose worrisome health risks.

In 1977, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified chrysotile and other forms of asbestos as cancer-causing in humans. Since the mid-1980s, Canada and the USA, two major producers, have adopted a “controlled use” approach to chrysotile mining and products which includes using the name chrysotile rather than asbestos. Even so, in 2005 the European Union (EU) implemented a ban on asbestos use. The lobby for an international ban points to compelling evidence in animal models that all asbestos can cause cancer in at least one species of animal while the industry (asbestos institute) counters with current evidence  that suggests a much stronger risk of mesothelioma in humans exposed to amphibole forms of the mineral.

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Contributor: Franco Momoli

Last reviewed: June 2, 2010

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