Health risk: asbestos is imperishable and dangerous
The use of asbestos has been banned in Germany since the early 1990s, but the material still poses a major health hazard. Asbestos fibers that have entered the lungs remain detectable for life - and can lead to lung diseases.
The use of asbestos has been banned since the early 1990s
After asbestos was identified as carcinogenic, the use of asbestos has been practically completely banned in Germany since 1993. Nevertheless, the material still poses a massive health hazard. Because asbestos fibers that get into the lungs can still be detected after decades - and are dangerous.
Asbestos fibers can still be found in the body after decades
Asbestos fibers can be detected in the same amount in the human lungs for almost 40 years. This was shown by the evaluation of a data record from the German Mesothelioma Register at the Institute for Pathology at the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB).
The data set contains measurement results of the asbestos concentration in the lungs of one and the same person, which were obtained every four to 21 years.
The research team around Inke Feder and Prof. Dr. Andrea Tannapfel published the results of the study together with colleagues from the Institute for Prevention and Occupational Medicine (IPA) of the German Social Accident Insurance in the "European Respiratory Journal".
Asbestos, a fibrous mineral found in natural rock, is highly valued in industry for its bio-resistance. Hence its name from the ancient Greek word "Asbestos", which stands for "imperishable".
The pulmonary dust analyzes carried out over 30 years and now for the first time analyzed in longitudinal section confirm this bio-resistance also for the human lungs. The researchers included twelve cases in their investigation.
"The special thing about our data set is that many years after the end of asbestos contact, the same concentration of asbestos in the lung tissue was determined in the same person with an asbestos-related lung disease at intervals of 4 to 21 years," explained Inke Feder in a message.
"The asbestos concentration in the lungs remained stable over this long period of almost 40 years and was therefore detectable."
This result applies to both blue asbestos, which is considered to be more hazardous to health, and white asbestos. For the latter - which has been used most in industry - it has been controversial among experts whether the fibers persist in the lungs or not.
Asbestos in the lungs
While foreign particles that have entered the lungs are usually caught by cilia, transported back to the airways and coughed up, fine fibers such as asbestos can penetrate deep into the alveoli.
As a reaction of the lungs, mesh-like, network-like diffuse scarring with the dusts embedded therein can form, the so-called asbestosis.
Because the asbestos fiber is so bio-resistant, the immune system's phagocytes cannot break it down. These phagocytes die and form the typical asbestos bodies. This releases ingredients that cause chronic inflammation, which can lead to cancer.
In addition, elements accumulate in this envelope structure, which can also be responsible for the carcinogenic effects of the asbestos bodies. A typical asbestos-related tumor is mesothelioma, which affects the pleura, among other things.
Lung cancer, larynx cancer and ovarian cancer can also be caused by asbestos. That is why asbestos has not been allowed to be used in Germany since 1993 and in the European Union since 2005.
Disease up to 60 years after exposure to asbestos
The time between the first asbestos contact and the onset of an asbestos-related illness can be ten to 60 years.
"This means that an asbestos-induced illness can still break out, even though the last asbestos contact was made a long time ago," explained Andrea Tannapfel, director of RUB pathology.
Since the treatment options differ greatly, it is essential to separate asbestos-related diseases from others. Lung fibrosis that is not caused by asbestos, for example, can be treated with drugs that are not approved for asbestosis, since no effectiveness has been shown to date.
Lung transplantation for advanced fibrosis is generally not an option for asbestosis patients.
"In the X-ray image, asbestos-free lung fibrosis can hardly be distinguished from asbestosis," said Prof. Rolf Merget, occupational physician at the IPA. "It is therefore of central importance that asbestos fibers can still be detected in the lung tissue after such a long time."
Last but not least, the question of the detectability of asbestos fibers in the lungs is crucial for how to assess the risk of asbestos in the workplace. From this follows the decision whether a lung disease can be recognized as an occupational disease, so that those affected are entitled to compensation. (ad)