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Have You Been Exposed to Asbestos? What Do You Do Next?

Maybe you helped a friend renovate their old kitchen, and they found out later the ceiling had asbestos. What do you do next?

Unfortunately, it’s easy to be exposed to asbestos, and it’s estimated that up to 40% of Kiwi men have inhaled asbestos fibres at some point. Because it’s so prevalent, in so many different forms, any renovations in pre-1990’s homes may have involved asbestos.

Unfortunately, there are no ‘safe’ levels of exposure. While repeated exposure to higher volumes of asbestos is more likely to develop an illness, it is sometimes simply due to luck. There’s no way to measure the amount of asbestos that results in illness like cancer, asbestosis, or mesothelioma.

What About Your PPE?

If you wore a face mask, you might think that would be enough. But asbestos testing needs more protection than just a surgical face mask. The proper protective equipment should include disposable overalls, boot covers, gloves, and eye protection. But most importantly, you need respiratory protective equipment too. For small jobs with undamaged asbestos or non-friable asbestos, a disposable or reusable half-face particulate respirator is probably enough. However, anything more than fleeting contact with undamaged asbestos requires a full face particulate respirator with filters. WorkSafe NZ says a P2 filter stops 94% of airborne particles, but a P3 filter stops 99.95% of particle inhalation. In general, the longer and more direct your exposure, the higher forms of protection are required.

The PPE needs to be used correctly too; the mask must fit properly, with no gaps. The seal must be perfect to reduce the chances of asbestos inhalation.

Throwing clothes with asbestos fibres in them into the washing machine is not enough. This can cause the fibres to become airborne. Once you’ve finished your works, the disposable gloves, overalls, and boot covers must be double-bagged and disposed of correctly. The risk from touching asbestos is minor, the real danger is in inhalation.

But What Do I Do If It’s Too Late and I’ve Already Inhaled Asbestos?

Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do. You won’t feel any different, you won’t start coughing in the upcoming months, and it’s not until sometimes decades later that the damage becomes noticeable. That’s because it takes time for the cells around the asbestos fibres to trigger inflammation, mutate, and turn cancerous.

First, register for the asbestos exposure database, which is used for research purposes only.  Then, there are some things you can do to help minimise the chance of asbestos causing illnesses.

Don’t Take Beta Carotene Supplements

Those days you remember to take your vitamin supplements, you might feel healthier, but in the case of beta carotene, it could increase your chances of lung cancer. Initial studies found that there was a protective effect from eating a healthy diet, rich in beta carotene. These people consumed a lot of fruit and vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, onions, spinach, peas, apricots and grapefruit.

So, researchers decided to give people beta carotene supplements to see the results. However, there was a significantly higher risk of lung cancer in those taking the supplement.

Stop Smoking or Vaping

It’s not rocket science; if your lungs are compromised, they are more susceptible to other illnesses. It’s a great excuse to give up smoking—after all, it’s an expensive habit that you don’t really enjoy anyway.

Get Your Flu Vaccine

Getting your influenza vaccine every year protects against infections which can weaken the lungs.

Talk to Your GP

Your doctor may be able to help put your fears in perspective. They can advise you of your options, give advice on what you should be doing, and put a note in your file to keep an eye out for symptoms in the future.

Watch for Symptoms of Asbestosis and Mesothelioma

Symptoms arising from asbestos exposure typically start anywhere from 10 to 40 years after exposure. Depending on what disease it presents as, there are different symptoms. However, in general, keep an eye out for:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain when breathing
  • Fatigue
  • An ongoing cough

If any of symptoms occur and you can’t attribute them to another sickness, go see your GP. They can arrange for diagnostic tests if needed.

The Final Word

If you’ve had a short, one-off exposure to asbestos, you’re probably ok. But if you’ve had repeated exposure, you are more at risk.

Don’t ever risk removing or dealing with asbestos yourself; always get a qualified, trained expert in asbestos removal. Your health is important.

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