To protect the public from the harmful effects of toxic chemicals and to find ways to treat people who have been harmed, scientists use many tests.
One way to see if a chemical will hurt people is to learn how the chemical is absorbed, used, and released by the body; for some chemicals, animal testing may be necessary. Animal testing may also be used to identify health effects such as cancer or birth defects. Without laboratory animals, scientists would lose a basic method to get information needed to make wise decisions to protect public health. Scientists have the responsibility to treat research animals with care and compassion. Laws today protect the welfare of research animals, and scientists must comply with strict animal care guidelines.
Information on the health effects of asbestos in people comes mostly from studies of people who were exposed in the past to levels of asbestos fibers (greater than or equal to 5 µm in length) in workplace air that were as high as 5 million fibers/m3 (5 fibers/mL). Workers who repeatedly breathe in asbestos fibers with lengths greater than or equal to 5 µm may develop a slow buildup of scar-like tissue in the lungs and in the membrane that surrounds the lungs. This scar-like tissue does not expand and contract like normal lung tissue and so breathing becomes difficult. Blood flow to the lung may also be decreased, and this causes the heart to enlarge. This disease is called asbestosis. People with asbestosis have shortness of breath, often accompanied by a cough. This is a serious disease and can eventually lead to disability or death in people exposed to high amounts of asbestos over a long period. However, asbestosis is not usually of concern to people exposed to low levels of asbestos. Changes in the membrane surrounding the lung, called pleural plaques, are quite common in people occupationally exposed to asbestos and are sometimes found in people living in areas with high environmental levels of asbestos.
Effects on breathing from pleural plaques alone are usually not serious. There is conflicting evidence as to whether their presence in a person accurately predicts more serious disease development in the future.
Asbestos workers have increased chances of getting two principal types of cancer: cancer of the lung tissue itself and mesothelioma, a cancer of the thin membrane that surrounds the lung and other internal organs. These diseases do not develop immediately following exposure to asbestos, but appear only after a number of years. There is also some evidence from studies of workers that breathing asbestos can increase the chances of getting cancer in other locations (for example, the stomach, intestines, esophagus, pancreas, and kidneys), but this is less certain. Members of the public who are exposed to lower levels of asbestos may also have increased chances of getting cancer, but the risks are usually small and are difficult to measure directly. Lung cancer is usually fatal, while mesothelioma is almost always fatal, often within a few months of diagnosis. Some scientists believe that early identification and intervention of mesothelioma may increase survival.
The levels of asbestos in air that lead to lung disease depend on several factors. The most important of these are (1) how long you were exposed, (2) how long it has been since your exposure started, and (3) whether you smoked cigarettes. Cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure increase your chances of getting lung cancer. Also, there is a scientific debate concerning the differences in the extent of disease caused by different fiber types and sizes. Some of these differences may be due to the physical and chemical properties of the different fiber types. For example, several studies suggest that amphibole asbestos types (tremolite, amosite, and especially crocidolite) may be more harmful than chrysotile, particularly for mesothelioma. Other data indicate that fiber size dimensions (length and diameter) are important factors for cancer-causing potential. Some data indicate that fibers with lengths greater than 5.0 µm are more likely to cause injury than fibers with lengths less than 2.5 µm. (1 µm is about 1/25,000 of an inch.) Additional data indicate that short fibers can contribute to injury. This appears to be true for mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. However, fibers thicker than 3.0 µm are of lesser concern, because they have little chance of penetrating to the lower regions of the lung.
The health effects from swallowing asbestos are unclear. Some groups of people who have been exposed to asbestos fibers in their drinking water have higher-than-average death rates from cancer of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. However, it is very difficult to tell whether this is caused by asbestos or by something else. Animals that were given very high doses of asbestos in food did not get more fatal cancers than usual, although some extra nonfatal tumors did occur in the intestines of rats in one study.
Several government offices and regulatory agencies have considered all of the evidence regarding the carcinogenicity of asbestos. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that asbestos is known to be a human carcinogen. The EPA has determined that asbestos is a human carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that asbestos is carcinogenic to humans. Please see the toxicological profile for more information on how asbestos can affect your health.