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Asbestos diseases are caused by inhaling asbestos dust and most cases of mesothelioma are caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a natural mineral, mined from rock found in many countries. Before the 1980s, asbestos was imported to the UK in large quantities for use in construction, ship-building and the manufacture of household appliances. When asbestos is disturbed or damaged, it releases tiny fibres that can be breathed into the lungs and cause inflammation, a build-up of scar tissue (fibrosis) and sometimes cancer.


During the 1960s the first definite link between mesothelioma and asbestos was made. Asbestos is now known to be the most common cause of the disease and asbestos was very widely used in insulation materials and building materials, including asbestos cement. Asbestos fibres are very fine and if they are breathed in they can penetrate to the smallest airways of the lung, so they cannot be breathed or coughed out. Once the fibres are in the lungs the body's defence mechanism tries to break them down and remove them, which leads to inflammation in the lung tissue. The asbestos fibres can also penetrate through the lung tissue to settle in the pleura (the membrane around the lung).


The asbestos fibres can also be swallowed, and some of the fibres can stick in the digestive tract. They can then move into the membrane that lines the abdomen (the peritoneum), where they cause inflammation.


The people most likely to have been exposed to asbestos include construction workers, plumbers, electricians, boilermakers, shipbuilders and demolition workers but teachers, children and nurses are believed to have been put at risk since asbestos was used in the construction of several schools and hospitals.


People who lived near to asbestos factories, or worked in buildings where asbestos was present have developed mesothelioma. Family members of people who worked with asbestos and brought the dust home on their clothes have also sometimes been affected. It can take up to 40 years for symptoms to show and over 3,000 people a year die of the disease in the UK. Numbers are predicted to rise to 10,000 a year by 2020. The number of people who develop mesothelioma will then start to reduce each year.



What are the symptoms?


The main symptoms include shortness of breath on exertion, a persistent cough, chest pain or tightening of the chest, nail abnormalities (such as ridges developing on the nails or white streaks on the nails) and thickening of the fingers and toes.



What is the treatment?


There is no cure for asbestos diseases, but, as severity depends on the length of exposure and amount of asbestos dust inhaled, early identification through chest x-ray can prevent further exposure and worsening of conditions. People who develop mesothelioma have a particularly bad prognosis. Around 75% die within one year of diagnosis. Mesothelioma can take between 20 and 40 years to develop after exposure to asbestos dust. Other cancers related to asbestos include lung cancer and cancers of the oesophagus, stomach, colon and rectum.


People with pleural diseases can have their lungs drained at intervals to relieve the build-up of fluid and some people with asbestos diseases may need oxygen masks to help them breathe. Asbestosis, for example, leads to a thickening of the lower part of the lungs, making them less elastic and causing breathing problems.



There are three types of asbestos: blue, brown and white. Blue and brown asbestos, are most commonly linked with mesothelioma. They are now very rarely used and cannot be imported into the UK. Originally, white asbestos was not thought to be dangerous but recent studies have now shown that it is also harmful.


Mesothelioma does not usually develop until 10-60 years after exposure to asbestos and for this reason it is often difficult to discover the exact cause.


In the 1980s, imports of blue and brown asbestos into the UK were stopped and in 1999 the importation and use of all asbestos was banned.

Rarely, mesothelioma develops in people who have never been exposed to asbestos. The other causes of the disease are not fully understood, but exposure to radiation has also in rare cases been linked to mesothelioma. Research has not found any evidence that smoking increases a person's risk of developing mesothelioma. It is also thought that exposure to other building materials such as fibreglass does not increase the risk.
Mesothelioma is not contagious and cannot be passed on to other people. It is not caused by inherited faulty genes and so children of people with mesothelioma do not have an increased risk of developing it, unless they have been in contact with asbestos.




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