Asbestos-Related Disease

Written by Rose Kivi and Winnie Yu | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

Asbestos disease refers to a number of ailments caused by inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers. Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral found in six naturally occurring minerals, namely amosite, chrysotile, crocidolite, and some varities of tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite. Up until the 1970s, asbestos was used in many manufactured items. Today, asbestos is used less often in the United States. Products containing asbestos are now labeled.

What Are the Types of Asbestos Disease?

The types of asbestos disease are:

  • asbestosis (inflammation that causes thickened and scarred lung tissues)
  • pleural effusion (excess fluid between the lining of the lungs and chest wall)
  • pleural plaque (thickening of pleura, which is the thin membrane surrounding the lungs)
  • lung cancer
  • mesothelioma (the most common form of asbestos-related lung cancer)

What Causes Asbestos Disease?

Asbestos disease is caused by inhaling or ingesting large amounts of asbestos fibers. Asbestos fibers become airborne when minerals or manufactured products containing asbestos are disturbed. The airborne asbestos fibers are too small for the naked eye to see. Asbestos disease may not develop until 10 to 40 years after exposure. .

Who Is at Risk for Asbestos Disease?

Almost everyone is exposed to low levels of asbestos at some point in their lives, which generally does not cause illness. The greater your exposure, the higher your risk of developing asbestos disease. You have an increased risk of asbestos disease if you:

  • live or have lived near naturally occurring deposits of minerals that contain asbestos
  • live or have lived near an asbestos mine
  • you work or have worked at a job where you are directly exposed to asbestos
  • you work or have worked at a job in construction or demolition
  • you work or have worked at a job doing asbestos removal
  • you were close to the World Trade Center during cleanup after the September 11, 2001 attack. The World Trade Center building contained asbestos, resulting in the release of hundreds of tons of asbestos fibers into the air.
  • you served in the military and directly worked with asbestos materials, or spent time in countries with old buildings that contained asbestos
  • your home is constructed with asbestos materials that are in poor condition
  • you live or have lived with a person who is exposed to high levels of asbestos (people who work with asbestos may inadvertently bring the fibers home on their clothes)
  • you smoke and have been exposed to asbestos (smokers who are exposed to asbestos have an increased risk of getting asbestos disease)

What Are the Symptoms of Asbestos Disease?

The symptoms of asbestos disease are dependent on the type of disease. Symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • a persistent cough that gets worse
  • coughing up blood
  • ongoing chest pain
  • chest tightness
  • neck or face swelling
  • problems swallowing
  • lack of appetite
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • frequent or persistent respiratory infections

How Is Asbestos Disease Diagnosed?

Your doctor may do one or more of the following to diagnose asbestos disease:

  • ask questions to determine if you were exposed to asbestos
  • listen to your lungs and heart
  • pulmonary function tests to find out how well your lungs are working
  • X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans to identify abnormalities in the lungs and chest
  • bronchoscopy (a test where a thin, long instrument, called a bronchoscope, is inserted into your nose or mouth, allowing the doctor to look for abnormalities or obtain tissue samples)
  • lung biopsy (a surgical procedure where your doctor removes a small sample of lung tissue to analyze for the presence of asbestos fibers)

How Is Asbestos Disease Treated?

There is no treatment that can remove asbestos fibers from the body or undo lung damage caused by asbestos. Treatment for asbestos disease is dependent on the particular disease and your symptoms. It focuses on easing symptoms and preventing complications. Treatments may include:

  • smoking cessation
  • oxygen therapy if you are having trouble breathing
  • thoracentesis (a procedure to remove excess fluid from between your lungs and chest wall)
  • medications to ease pain, reduce fluid buildup, and treat other symptoms
  • surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation to treat lung cancer and mesothelioma
  • flu and pneumonia vaccines to reduce your chances of getting sick
  • clinical trials (new medicines and procedures still in the testing phase)

What Is The Long-Term Outlook?

If you have asbestos disease, you will need regular medical treatment for the rest of your life. Your survival depends on the type and stage of asbestos disease you have.

How Can I Prevent Asbestos Disease?

You can prevent asbestos disease by doing the following:

  • Find out if you are exposed to asbestos fibers at your job.
  • If you work with asbestos, make sure your employer follows proper asbestos safety rules. Wear a proper respirator and protective clothing.
  • If you live in an older house and suspect you have asbestos in it, have a professional evaluation done.. If you want the asbestos removed, hire a trained professional who follows proper asbestos safety rules.
  • Stop smoking to reduce your risk of asbestos disease.
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