Asbestos and Cancer

It is more than well known that exposure to Asbestos can cause a range of diseases including cancer. Asbestos is a group of minerals that are comprised of fibers. What made asbestos popular was its property of being heat resistant, fire resistant and resistant to chemicals.

It has been widely mined and used in industries like automobiles, construction and others. Asbestos is known to be one of the major causes of lung cancer and multiple other diseases. Let us find out how does Asbestos cause cancer?

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos Corrugated Sheet

Asbestos Corrugated Sheet

As mentioned above Asbestos is a term used for a group of minerals that are naturally occurring in the environment. These occur in the form of fibers that are resistant to chemicals, heat and fire. With regards to chemical composition of Asbestos they are silicate compounds. Asbestos is being mined since the 1800’s and has been widely used in a variety of industries – construction and building, shipbuilding, automobiles, paint, adhesives and plastics.

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos Worker

Asbestos Worker

When Asbestos products are disturbed they tend to disperse the tiny fibers into the air and when these fibers are breathed in they are trapped in the lungs and continue to stick for years and years. I hope this starts to give you a picture between the connection of Asbestos and cancer.

Exposure to Asbestos may occur in many forms – during mining, while processing it, manufacturing products from Asbestos, demolishing or removing older buildings, contaminated food and water, family members of Asbestos workers. Exposure to Asbestos can be primary and/or secondary. As long as the fibers are not released into the air Asbestos meaning that  the product in which it has been used is intact there are no dangers from it but the moment the product gets damaged and fibers released into the air and inhaled the damage caused by it starts.

Accumulation of these fibers for years at a stretch can lead to multiple health problems of serious nature. Mining and use of Asbestos is being banned in a number of countries. Efforts are on the world over to reduce the use of Asbestos if not eliminate it totally. The idea is to reduce exposure to it if it cannot be done away with all together. Strict guidelines are prescribed by various governments in cases where exposure to Asbestos is inevitable.

Asbestos and Cancer: How does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

Various studies conducted have indicated that Asbestos can increase the risk of certain types of cancers namely

– Lung Cancer

– Mesothelioma

– Cancer of the Layrnx

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– Ovaries.

Increased risk of lung cancer has been observed with all forms of Asbestos. The higher the exposure to lung cancer the greater is the risk. Lung cancer may b diagnosed amongst people working with Asbestos even 15 years after the exposure has ceased. The risk increases manifold for workers who smoke.

Mesothelioma is another type of cancer that may be found in people exposed to Asbestos. This type of cancer affects the thin membrane lining the organs in the chest and the abdomen. This type of cancer is usually found in people who have had primary exposure to Asbestos and has also been found in family members of people who have had primary exposure. Just as in the case of lung cancer there are no safe limits of exposure.  It may be diagnosed as long as 30 years after exposure to Asbestos.

Symptoms that you need to watch out for

Some of the symptoms that you need to watch out for are:

  • Shortness of breath;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Pain in the chest;
  • Persistent cough;
  • Difficulty in swallowing;
  • Weight loss;
  • Fatigue and anemia;
  • A swelling on the face and the neck area.

Asbestos in India

Asbestos is banned in more than 50 countries the world over. Just as in developed countries primary and secondary exposure to Asbestos can be attributed to mining of the mineral, its processing and use in automotive units, construction industry and its use in electrical and mechanical appliances. More commonly known as ‘a poor man’s roof’ Asbestos can be easily seen everywhere in the country. Where developed countries are worried about clearing out Asbestos from where ever it has been used, India is still involved in importing Asbestos from Canada, Russia and Kazakhstan. The irony of the whole situation is that Canada does not manufacture Asbestos for us in its own country and rather for export to developing countries like India.

Note: Please keep a lookout for the Part II of this post being written by Dr Ujla Minhas

Watch the following video for a better insight into Asbestos Trade in India.


Video on Asbestos Effects


American Cancer Society Portal

Asbestos: Selected Cancers by Committee on Asbestos, Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, Institute of Medicine

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  • A lawyer by profession, social worker and a fighter against cancer