If you know anything about asbestos, you will likely know that it is an extremely harmful substance that can cause lung disease and aggressive forms of cancer. You may also know that it is a naturally occurring mineral that, once ingested or inhaled, remains in the body unchanged, gradually causing damage and inflammation, often resulting in severe illness.
You may also be aware that it was originally hailed as a miracle mineral because its highly durable, heat resistant, non-corrosive properties made it a game-changing material for manufacturers; before the sinister truth of its dangers was uncovered.
So, just how hardy is this substance – can it even be destroyed? Does it have a half-life?
What is a half-life?
According to the Britannica definition, a half-life – in relation to radioactivity – is the amount of time it takes for one-half of a sample’s atomic nuclei to decay (change by emitting energy and particles).
For example, the radioactive isotope called cobalt-60 (used for radiotherapy) has a half-life of 5.26 years. Therefore, after 5.26 years, a sample originally containing 8g of cobalt-60 would only contain 4g, and thus only emit half as much radiation as the original sample.
Does Asbestos decay?
Unfortunately, no. Unlike other substances – even nuclear waste – asbestos does not have a half-life because it doesn’t decay. It can be left untouched for many decades and not change form. After many generations have passed, once disturbed, asbestos continues to pose the same dangers as it did when it was originally removed from the ground and used in manufacturing processes.
Asbestos could be left undisturbed for 5,000 years and would still have the same material integrity with no decay.
Asbestos’ durability is what makes it so lethal
The durable nature of asbestos is what makes the mineral so harmful to humans when inhaled or ingested; it simply does not break down, even in the body.
Some asbestos fibers may be coughed up, but the smaller ones are more likely to remain deep in the lungs, embedding themselves into the lungs and other tissue, puncturing and tearing at the tissues, and never breaking down or dissolving into the body’s fluids.
Because they do not corrode or dissolve, they remain in the body until the person’s death, gradually causing more and more scar tissue build-up, further diminishing lung capacity and eventually leading to asbestos injuries such as severe lung disease or mesothelioma. Asbestos fibers can also be swallowed from airborne sources and ingested into the body’s digestive system, causing damage to the stomach and colon.
Synergistic effects of asbestos and smoking
Asbestos’ hardiness is also one reason smoking tobacco and exposure to asbestos has a synergistic effect on health. Smoking tobacco causes damage to the brush-like cilia of the bronchus – lessening the body’s ability to expel foreign particles from the lungs. In addition, cigarette smoking can impair the function of the immune system, making it even harder for the body to attack the asbestos fibers. Any chance the body has of expelling the asbestos fibers is greatly reduced when tobacco smoking damages the body’s natural abilities to fight off foreign particles. Smoking can rob the body of its only potential for expelling asbestos particles, which will otherwise stay in place until death.
If you may have been exposed to asbestos, speak with your healthcare provider about tests and screening to help detect the presence of asbestos fibers and asbestos-related damage.
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