How are asbestos-related diseases detected?
Individuals who have been exposed (or suspect they have been exposed) to asbestos fibers on the job, through the environment, or at home via a family contact should inform their doctor about their exposure history and whether or not they experience any symptoms. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not become apparent for many decades after the exposure. It is particularly important to check with a doctor if any of the following symptoms develop (6):
- Shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness.
- A persistent cough that gets worse over time.
- Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs.
- Pain or tightening in the chest.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Swelling of the neck or face.
- Loss of appetite.
- Weight loss.
- Fatigue or anemia.
A thorough physical examination, including a chest x-ray and lung function tests, may be recommended. The chest x-ray is currently the most common tool used to detect asbestos-related diseases. However, it is important to note that chest x-rays cannot detect asbestos fibers in the lungs, but they can help identify any early signs of lung disease resulting from asbestos exposure (2).
Studies have shown that computed tomography (CT) (a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body taken from different angles; the pictures are created by a computer linked to an x-ray machine) may be more effective than conventional chest x-rays at detecting asbestos-related lung abnormalities in individuals who have been exposed to asbestos (12).
A lung biopsy, which detects microscopic asbestos fibers in pieces of lung tissue removed by surgery, is the most reliable test to confirm the presence of asbestos-related abnormalities. A bronchoscopy is a less invasive test than a biopsy and detects asbestos fibers in material that is rinsed out of the lungs. It is important to note that these tests cannot determine how much asbestos an individual may have been exposed to or whether disease will develop (12). Asbestos fibers can also be detected in urine, mucus, or feces, but these tests are not reliable for determining how much asbestos may be in an individual’s lungs (2).
How can workers protect themselves from asbestos exposure?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a component of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and is the Federal agency responsible for health and safety regulations in maritime, construction, manufacturing, and service workplaces. OSHA established regulations dealing with asbestos exposure on the job, specifically in construction work, shipyards, and general industry, that employers are required to follow. In addition, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), another component of the DOL, enforces regulations related to mine safety. Workers should use all protective equipment provided by their employers and follow recommended workplace practices and safety procedures. For example, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved respirators that fit properly should be worn by workers when required.
Workers who are concerned about asbestos exposure in the workplace should discuss the situation with other employees, their employee health and safety representative, and their employers. If necessary, OSHA can provide more information or make an inspection. Regional offices of OSHA are listed in the “United States Government” section of a telephone directory’s blue pages (under “Department of Labor”). Information about regional offices can also be found on OSHA’s website.
More information about asbestos is available on OSHA’s Asbestos page, which has links to information about asbestos in the workplace, including what OSHA standards apply, the hazards of asbestos, evaluating asbestos exposure, and controls used to protect workers. OSHA’s national office can be contacted at:
Office of Public Affairs
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW.
Washington, DC 20210
http://www.osha.gov/workers.html (workers’ page)
Mine workers can contact MSHA at:
Office of Public Affairs
Mine Safety and Health Administration
U.S. Department of Labor
1100 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22209
http://www.msha.gov/codeaphone/codeaphonenew.htm (National Hazard Reporting Page)
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is another Federal agency that is concerned with asbestos exposure in the workplace. NIOSH conducts asbestos-related research, evaluates work sites for possible health hazards, and makes exposure control recommendations. In addition, NIOSH distributes publications on the health effects of asbestos exposure and can suggest additional sources of information. NIOSH can be contacted at:
Education and Information Division
Information Resources Branch
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
4676 Columbia Parkway
Cincinnati, OH 45226