Asbestos damages health when asbestos fibres are breathed into the lungs. Because asbestos fibres are so fine, they can penetrate deep into the smallest airways of the lungs so that they cannot be easily coughed out.
Once the fibres are inside the lungs, the body’s defence mechanism tries to break them down and remove them. Each fibre is a foreign body, like a splinter in a finger. As the body tries to neutralise and break down the irritating fibres, inflammations develop.
These processes lead to the development of asbestos-related diseases. Asbestos fibres are so strong that they can also penetrate through tissue into the sensitive lining of the lungs causing illness. Once fibres are in the body, they can move around, not only into the pleura, but also the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.
Fibres can also be swallowed, ingested. For example when mucous and sputum that contain a lot of fibres are swallowed, some of these fibres can stick in the intestinal track and from there they can move into the lining of the abdomen peritoneum. Fibres can penetrate the skin and cause irritation and reddening. Because of this, some people think that asbestos can grow inside the body like a tree, but this does not happen.
Does exposure to asbestos always damage health?
It is possible to be exposed to high levels of asbestos for long periods of time and not to develop any of the asbestos-related diseases. However, it is generally thought that the more asbestos a person has been exposed to, the more likely it is of developing an asbestos-related disease. This may mean that you have been exposed to smaller doses of asbestos over a long period of time, perhaps two years, or to larger doses over a shorter period of time, which can be as little as a few hours or days in the case of the disease mesothelioma.
There is usually a long latency period between exposure and actually developing an asbestos disease. It usually takes at least 10 years, but can take much longer. It can, for instance take up to 40 or more years to develop mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos.