Asbestosis is a chronic (long-term) lung condition caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos. Asbestos itself is a soft, greyish-white material that does not burn. In the past it was widely used in building construction to protect against fire and as a form of insulation.
Mesothelioma is cancer of the mesothelial cells which are the cells that make up the lining that covers the outer surface of most of our body organs. For example, mesothelioma can develop in the lining covering the lungs. About 2,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral often found in insulation materials around pipes and tanks, in tiles and other building materials. It was used extensively in the 1970s because of its strength and heat resistance. White, blue and brown asbestos are all potentially dangerous and have all been banned in the UK.
This is become if asbestos is damaged, the fine fibres become airborne and can be inhaled. When these fibres penetrate the lung tissue, they trigger an inflammatory reaction. The body recognises there’s a problem and sends defensive white blood cells to engulf and attack the fibres.
The fibres usually resist and destroy these blood cells, promoting further inflammation and irreversible scarring of the lungs, called fibrosis.
There’s no known safe level of asbestos exposure. However, it’s thought the higher the levels of asbestos and the longer the time someone is exposed to it, the greater their risk of developing problems.
Asbestosis is a relatively rare condition as it takes a considerable amount of exposure to cause it, and regulations to restrict exposure have been in place for more than 40 years. However, in 2009 there were 189 deaths caused by asbestosis. During 2010, 1,015 people were assessed for industrial injuries disablement benefit for the condition.
In contrast with the decrease in the number of cases of asbestosis, cases of mesothelioma are increasing and are not expected to reach their peak until 2013‑16. Mesothelioma can be caused by small amounts of asbestos exposure, which explains the difference in the number of cases of asbestosis and mesothelioma. This shows that the legislation introduced in 1970 to prevent high levels of asbestos exposure in the workplace helped to reduce the risk of asbestosis.
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