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Asbestos exposures can result in deadly diseases

Federal laws governing industries that use asbestos in construction or other trades are required to implement specific safety measures to protect workers. Problems arise when asbestos dust is disturbed, the fibers become airborne and are then inhaled.

When that happens, the fibers stick in the alveoli of the lungs, stiffening the tissue and making it harder to exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood. One of the consequences of extended workplace exposure to asbestos is scarred and irritated lung tissue, leading to a diagnosis of asbestosis.

What makes the condition especially insidious is that symptoms normally don't manifest for a period of 10-40 years from the initial exposure. Some of the symptoms of asbestosis are:

-- Decrease in appetite with accompanying weight loss

-- Pain or tightness in the chest

-- Shortness of breath

-- Lingering, dry cough

-- Clubbing of tips of fingers and toes

It usually takes multiple exposures over a long period of time for the condition to develop. Workers at heightened risk for asbestosis are those who removed or installed materials made from asbestos prior to the late 1970's. At-risk industries and occupations include:

-- Mill workers

-- Railroad employees

-- Shipbuilders

-- Miners

-- Auto and aircraft mechanics

-- Boilermakers

-- Electricians

-- Construction workers

Cigarette smoking is linked to accumulation of asbestos fibers in the lungs. Experts also believe that the disease progresses faster in smokers. Quitting smoking can lower the risk of developing lung cancer, emphysema or asbestosis. Secondhand smoke exposure can exacerbate the disease. Getting the flu and pneumonia vaccines and treating all respiratory infections can lower the risk of developing disabling lung conditions.

Pursuing litigation against the companies that failed to protect workers from asbestos exposure is possible even decades later. If you are suffering from asbestosis, you or your surviving family members may decide to file a claim for damages.

Source: Mayo Clinic, "Symptoms," accessed Sep. 25, 2015

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