Alfonso Tabanyag, 65 has been looking forward to the birth of his first grandson. Donning his favorite Chicago Bulls cap, he stepped out to take a taxicab to the hospital where his daughter gave birth. Suddenly he felt being choked, his lung seemed bursting and he was gasping for air holding his chest.
Brought to the emergency room not far from the ward where his grandson lay sleeping, he was told he was suffering from severe Asbestosis, a killing phenomenon for people who have long been exposed to asbestos or its components.
Tabanyag is one of more than 1,000 worker-victims of Asbestosis in this once-sprawling US military base, who worked for 25 years insulating the facilities from dreaded military attacks that could make the base erupt into an inferno.
For Tabanyag, breathing from now on will be a struggle.
There are thousands more like him, says the International Labor Organization (ILO) who reported in its September labor international updates that cancer-causing asbestos and its particles continue to maim men, women and children alike worldwide.
It is urgently pushing for the adoption of more stringent standards on industrial uses of asbestos.
Fiber-Mineral the Only Kind
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral formerly used a great deal as heat and fire-resistant insulating material. This threadlike mineral fiber has more than 2,000 uses which is why many countries have not totally junked it.
From being fire resistant to good conductor of heat and electricity, ILO said it is probably found in almost 95 percent of all houses worldwide because it is a component of cement.
It is used in housing, fireproofing, and automobile parts especially as brake lining and gaskets, theater curtains, roofing, electrical insulation, caulking, cement pipes, floor tiles, and plastics. In manufacturing firms, it is used to insulate boilers, and as filters that resist chemicals.
As a mineral, asbestos is hydrated silicates from the mineral silica and comes from metamorphic rock. It was discovered in 1774 by Abraham G. Werner, a Mineralogist. It was used till 1931 before doctors noted the ill effects it causes to people.
Russia and Canada remain the biggest producers worldwide.
In its September 2010 report, the ILO said that asbestos does not only cause Asbestosis, a serious lung disease, but also Bronchial Cancer and Mesothelioma (cancer of the Pleura and Peritoneus) which are fatal.
Asbestosis is a disease that blocks the lungs with thick fibrous tissues. Besides causing difficulty and shortness of breath, it causes swollen fingers and toes.
To those directly working with it like Tabanyag, asbestos causes Bronchogenic Cancer, the cancer of the bronchial tubes.
ILO also announced that cigarette-smoking workers who are exposed to asbestos have high rick to cancer.
People exposed to asbestos such as those working in asbestos mines, industrial facilities, insulation fabrication and military installations are the most likely to develop such diseases, ILO said.
According to Dr. Tony Smith, Deputy Editor of the British Medical Journal, asbestosis causes widespread scarring of the lungs and tends to progress even when exposure to it is discontinued.
The disease causes breathlessness and a dry cough eventually leading to severe disability and death.
Victims usually start experiencing asbestosis symptoms after seven to ten years of exposure.
Smith clarified that, even today, scientists do not know how asbestos causes disease.
Medical researchers though explain that fibers longer than 5 to 10 micrometers increase the risk of illness, he said.
An extremely short period of inhaling large amounts of asbestos fibers may result in Mesethelioma, he added.
Other Asbestos-Induced Diseases
Smith explained that mesothelioma is a result of a malignant tumor of the pleura or the peritoneum.
The Pleura is a membrane that surrounds the lungs while the Peritoneum is a membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and covers the abdominal organs.
He lamented that there is no treatment for the disease which usually leads to death within one or two years.
Another disease that arises from exposure to asbestos, the ILO reported, is Bilateral Diffuse Pleural Thickening wherein the outer and inner layers of the pleura become thickened and become calcified or “bony”. This causes fluid to accumulate in between the cavities and restricts the ability of the lungs to expand resulting in shortness of breath.
The American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons bared that asbestos is also the cause of pleural plagues.
These are thickened tissues confined to the outer layer of the pleura. While this does not cause disability, it can develop into an asbestos-related disease.
Jekyll and Hyde
Occupationally, millions are exposed to inhalation of significant amounts of asbestos dust during the ordinary workday. This is because there is still a growing world production of asbestos.
Some 5 million tons were produced last year compared to only 675,000 tons in 1940, added the ILO.
While using asbestos for insulation got abated, the mineral is still vital in production of cement and as ingredient to some 1,000 other industrial products.
No technologically alternative materials can replace asbestos today, ILO admitted as it saves millions of lives when manufactured into fire protection and brake linings. But, it is also a threat especially to the health of industrial workers, thus dubbed “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”.
The ILO recommends that governments should prescribe occupational exposure limits with corresponding testing measures, and that an international safety measure standard be adopted. Such measures must include dust control, constant monitoring of workers’ health, and the use of adequate protective clothes and masks.