St. Louis Pipe Rupture Spotlights Danger of Asbestos Exposure

On April 5, 2012, an underground steam pipe burst in downtown St. Louis, blasting asbestos insulation and other debris into the air some 40 feet. The rubble covered buildings, sidewalks, and cars for blocks, requiring days of professional clean-up.

Fortunately, after thorough cleaning and testing, it was determined that there was no remaining evidence of asbestos in the area.

But prior to the testing those who worked and lived near the rupture expressed real concern about exposure to the airborne asbestos. And with good reason: exposure to asbestos has proven to increase a person's risk for developing lung disease.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber that is resistant to heat, can be woven, and remains strong when stretched. Through the years, it's been used in a variety of building construction materials and friction products, such as:

  • Roofing shingles
  • Ceiling and floor tiles
  • Paper and cement products
  • Automobile brakes and clutches

At rest, asbestos poses minimal health risks. But when products that contain asbestos are broken or disturbed, like during the demolition or remodeling of buildings, microscopic fibers can be released into the air and inhaled. Once it enters the lungs, asbestos can be deadly.

Long-term exposure to asbestos has been linked to a myriad of serious, even fatal, health problems. Once embedded in lung tissue, asbestos may cause asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma.

While all three can be devastating, mesothelioma arguably poses the most dire consequences, as it is aggressive and always fatal, and there is no cure. After being diagnosed with this cancer, most victims live only a few months or years. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in this country each year.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Asbestos inhaled through the mouth or nose (or ingested) may become embedded in the lining of the lungs, causing inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue. Over a long period of time - 20 to 40 years - this inflammation and scar tissue can develop into the mesothelioma tumor. Because of this long gestation period, mesothelioma most commonly occurs in older individuals. However, it has been shown that high concentration of asbestos can cause the disease to develop much quicker.

There are several symptoms of mesothelioma. They can mirror those of other diseases or conditions, but generally include:

  • Persistent dry cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Weight loss and fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent chest or rib pain

Who's At Risk for Mesothelioma?

Anyone who has experienced years of exposure to asbestos is at risk for developing mesothelioma. Because of asbestos' commercial use, those most associated with the disease are electricians, shipyard workers, construction workers, pipefitters, and plumbers. Many or most employed in these industries decades ago were not aware they were being exposed to asbestos nor the wrongful death such exposure can eventually cause.

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