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Asbestos: A tiny but lethal fiber

By The Virginian-Pilot, May 6, 2001

A miracle mineral

Asbestos is the generic term for a mineral that separates into long, threadlike fibers. Though fragile in appearance, the fibers resist heat, electricity, acid, corrosion and decay. The term ''asbestos'' is derived from a Greek word meaning ''inextinguishable'' or ''unquenchable.'' Asbestos can be spun like cotton, making it the only mineral that can be woven into cloth. Asbestos' unusual qualities have been known for thousands of years. It was first mined commercially in the 1870s.

A minuscle menace

An inch of chrysotile asbestos contains about 1 million individual fibrils lying side by side. The tiniest fibrils are so small that when airborne, they settle to the ground at a rate of about a foot per hour. And just one fiber can cause cancer, most medical experts believe.

A multitude of industry uses

Asbestos has numerous commercial purposes. Before its health risks were publicized in the 1970s, one of the key uses was ship insulation.

It also was used widely in construction products. Other common uses included rail car and refinery insulation; theater curtains; brake pads; and clutch linings. In 1942 alone, the War Production Board allocated to the nation's shipyards 40 percent of the estimated 36.8 million pounds of the asbes-tos-containing pipe insulation produced domestically. About 20 countries have banned commercial use of asbestos. It is not banned in the United States, but its use has been discontinued in virtually all consumer products. Most asbestos today is mined in Canada, Russia and Africa. The primary markets are developing nations, where in some cases usage is increasing.

Diseases related to asbestos

When inhaled, asbestos fibers can lodge in the lungs and cause disease. Because of their virtual indestructibility, the fibers can remain in the lungs indefinitely. Three lung diseases are most commonly associated with asbestos exposure. They don't usually occur until years, sometimes decades, later. Gastrointestinal diseases are also associated with asbestos exposure, but are not as common.

Asbestosis is a fibrosis, or scarring, of the lungs that causes difficulty breathing. It is the disease most commonly caused by asbestos exposure. Symptoms include ''rales,'' a rattling in the lungs, and clubbing, or swelling, of fingers and toes. It is a progressive disease for which there is no cure. The longer and more intensive the exposure to asbestos, the more severe the disease is likely to be.

Lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure is often fatal and increases exponentially in people who also smoke cigarettes. Other cancers associated with asbes-tos exposure, but which are reported less frequently than lung cancer, include larynx and gastrointes-tinal tract cancers.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lung and abdomen. It is distinguished by a fast-growing, sheetlike tumor that can cause the victim to suffocate. It is almost always fatal. Cigarette smokers are not more likely to be stricken with mesothelioma.

Impact on Hampton Roads

Most local victims worked in area shipyards. Others include sailors and merchant seamen who served aboard ships insulated with asbestos, and railroad, refinery and construction workers. Family members exposed to asbestos brought home on the clothes of workers and sailors can also be affected. Here is a look at the local impact:

  • At least 9,000 people in Hampton Roads have suffered asbestos disease, based on settlements of legal claims. About 2,000 of those have been cancer victims, the rest asbestosis victims.
  • The rate for mesothelioma here is seven times higher than the national average. Between 1982 and 2000, an average of at least one local person was diagnosed with the cancer every 10 days.
  • About 4,200 current or former shipyard workers can be expected to die of asbestos-related cancer before the epidemic subsides in about 30 years, based on data compiled by occupational health experts.
Death toll in U.S. shipyards

Medical researchers have projected that, nationwide, deaths from malignancies among shipyard workers peaked at about 2,700 in 1987. About 1,700 are projected to die this year.




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