Asbestos, a health hazard

Present in nature, asbestos can be used to make a material composed of fibres, often harmful to health. Their inhalation causes respiratory pathologies most often benign, but sometimes cancerous.

What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral of the silicate family (minerals very common in the earth’s crust), present in rocks called “Amiantifères”. Once crushed, these rocks can be used to make a material also named “Asbestos”, which is utilized in the building sector and industry. This material is composed of invisible fibres, 400 to 500 times less thick than a hair, capable of floating among the dust of the atmosphere.

Why are asbestos fibres harmful to health?
In the case of inhalation, asbestos filaments may be deposited in the lungs and cause respiratory diseases:

Benign pulmonary diseases and pleura;
Cancer pathologies.
The toxicity of amiantées fibers depends on several factors, partially known to scientists:

Their physical and chemical properties could affect their speed of elimination by the organism, making them more or less toxic and carcinogenic. For example, magnesium-containing fibres would be less harmful than those that do not contain them.
The length and fineness of the fibres would increase their toxicity. Indeed, the respiratory system would less easily eliminate long and fine fibres, remaining more in the tissues.

Asbestos: A material responsible for occupational diseases

In industrialized countries, work is very far the most important source of asbestos exposure.

Thus, asbestos-related illnesses today represent the second most frequent category of occupational diseases, with 5 000 cases recognized each year. However, benign attacks are much more common than cancers, as they account for nearly 80% of the occupational pathologies recognized for asbestos.

The health effects of asbestos inhalation often occur several years after the start of the exposure. Repeated contact increases the likelihood of getting sick, but some conditions may occur after a small number of exposures.

In this context, the prevention of asbestos-related problems remains one of the priority themes of occupational health.

Who is most exposed to asbestos today?

Since 1997, the risk of inhalation of asbestos dust is primarily affecting employees in the following sectors:

Asbestos removal (or “asbestos “);
Demolition, rehabilitation, maintenance of buildings (plumbers, electricians, heating, painters, etc.);
Asbestos waste treatment;
Interventions on land containing asbestos in the natural state (risk also affecting the populations of these sites).

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