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Fiberglass – A Medical Viewpoint

Dr C.R. Snyman

 

Dr C.R. Snyman qualified in medicine at Stellenbosch University in 1977 and undertook post-graduate studies in occupational health at the University of the Witwatersrand. He has worked at Eskom, studying the effects of asbestos insulation material on health, and since 1990, has run a private occupational health consultancy.

 

Medical science has spent a considerable amount of time and money on research into the health effects of fibreglass. Fibreglass is a dusty product. Other dusty minerals such as silica and asbestos are known to cause psychoneurosis (also known as dust lung disease) and certain types of lung cancer. Research has sought to establish whether or not exposure to fibreglass dust presents the same or similar hazards.

 

Surveys of the health of thousands of people who had worked for many years in the fibreglass industry show the following:

  • No mesothelioma due to fibreglass.
    • Mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused by asbestos.
  • No dust lung disease.
    • Exposure by inhalation to very high levels of fibreglass dust resulted in mild inflammation of the lungs. This inflammation receded when exposure ceased.

 

The difference between fibreglass and other mineral fibres lies in the durability (or biopersistance) of the fibre. Glass differs considerably in its chemical and physical characteristics:

 

It is a non-crystalline structure. It is the crystalline structure of natural mineral products that damage the lung. Glass breaks into shorter, but not thinner fragments. The dangerous fibrous products are the ones which keep their length but break into thinner particles. Glass is eroded and dissolved in certain solutions, of which the fluid inside the lung is an example. Recent experiments have shown how glass fibres lose their smooth surface and become brittle in the lung to the point where they are easily removed by natural body mechanisms.

 

In post-mortem studies conducted upon former fibreglass workers, no more fibre particles were found in their lungs than were found in the lungs of people who were not exposed to fibreglass.

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