Question: They have recently removed lots of asbestos from inside the ceiling of our office. When and why is asbestos dangerous?
Asbestos is made from long, thin microscopic fibers. If this fiber is inhaled, it sticks in the tiny tubules deep inside your lung and cannot escape. In this position, it causes constant irritation which can lead to emphysema, chronic bronchitis or cancer. Usually a considerable amount of asbestos fiber must be inhaled for any significant disease to develop.
In commercial use, asbestos is normally combined with cement to make building boards or pipes. In this form it is totally safe. Only if the material is sawed or broken can the fibers escape to be inhaled. Anyone using asbestos cement should wear a face mask to prevent inhalation of any particles when sawing. Asbestos as a dust or powder is also used as an insulating material. This is usually placed in walls or ceilings, and again it is unlikely to be inhaled in these situations, but if someone walks in the ceiling space and stirs up the asbestos dust, or if the plaster wall is broken allowing the asbestos to escape, inhalation may be dangerous.
It takes many years for any disease to develop after the asbestos is inhaled, and in many people, no disease ever develops. Asbestos is safe if used carefully and workers are adequately protected.
Question: About 6 months ago I was moving a quantity of asbestos sheets without any protection, and that night I coughed a lot and felt irritation on my chest. This has persisted ever since. I would appreciate it if you could advise me what to do.
Asbestos can only cause harm to humans if inhaled. Touching, or even swallowing small amounts of asbestos, is quite harmless. To be inhaled, asbestos must be in a dust or powder form, and it is sometimes used in this way as insulation in ceilings and between walls. The sawing of asbestos sheets also produces asbestos dust that can be inhaled, and particles of asbestos may be widespread in asbestos mines and factories that manufacture asbestos products.
Old asbestos sheets may deteriorate to the point where the surface breaks down and crumbles, and a small amount of asbestos dust may be produced in this way. If small amounts of asbestos dust are inhaled infrequently, the lungs can cope adequately and expel the particles. Only long exposure to considerable amounts of asbestos dust will result in severe lung disease.
The asbestos particles are quite long and thin fibers when viewed under a microscope, which makes them difficult for the lung to remove by coughing up the mucus that accumulates around them. Over a number of years, they can irritate the lung lining to the point where the cells become cancerous. The most common form of lung cancer caused by asbestos is called mesothelioma, and this is virtually untreatable. The casual handling of sheets of asbestos for a short period of time is not going to cause any lasting lung disease, and I suspect your cough is coincidental, x-rays would not show the presence of small quantities of asbestos dust in the lungs. Please be reassured.