Though experts have found a strong link between emphysema and asbestos exposure, more evidence is needed to prove causation.

Asbestos has been banned for many uses in the United States since 1989 due to its known cancerous properties. But even though experts know that asbestos exposure can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other diseases, the causative link between emphysema and asbestos remains unclear.

Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in which the little air sacs in the lungs (called alveoli) are inflated, making it harder to breathe. It’s most often found in smokers, but breathing in harmful irritants like asbestos may also help trigger its onset.

Although asbestos exposure is known to affect the lungs, research is limited on the relationship between asbestos and emphysema.

The relationship between asbestos and emphysema isn’t fully understood. However, some older research has suggested that asbestos exposure may increase the likelihood of developing emphysema.

For instance, in a 2004 study of 600 construction workers who smoked, emphysema was more common among participants who were either exposed to high levels of asbestos or had asbestosis (a disease caused by asbestos exposure).

The report concluded that more research is needed before they can prove that asbestos exposure definitively causes emphysema.

Asbestos is known to cause a variety of respiratory problems.

When particles of mineral fiber are inhaled into the lungs, they can cause serious damage. This occurs because the asbestos bits erode tiny air spaces in the lungs called alveoli, and scar tissue begins to build. Over time, this can make breathing harder.

Asbestos also makes the lungs more vulnerable to conditions like lung disease and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare, serious type of cancer that builds on the outer lining of organs, including the lungs. It’s most often caused by asbestos exposure.

COPD is an umbrella term for a group of diseases that cause respiratory issues. They’re characterized by blocked airflow and damaged lung tissue.

Types of COPD include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In 2018, COPD was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

Most people who get COPD are over 40 and have a history of smoking. That being said, asbestos exposure may also play a role in its onset. According to 2011 research, COPD affects an estimated 19% of asbestos workers and insulators.

Meanwhile, in a large 2004 study involving over 317,000 construction workers, researchers found that occupational exposure to asbestos, dust, and other on-site irritants increased the risk of dying from COPD, even among nonsmokers.

In a 2020 study involving 990 insulation workers, researchers concluded that exposure to insulation materials like asbestos was associated with a greater risk of chest infections and, to a lesser degree, COPD.

Despite the connection, researchers still can’t prove that asbestos definitely causes COPD.

Asbestosis is the medical term for developing lung disease that’s caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. Over time, breathing these fibers in can damage and scar lung tissue and cause shortness of breath.

On the other hand, COPD refers to a group of diseases that cause various breathing-related problems. It’s typically more severe than asbestosis. It’s possible to develop COPD as a complication of an asbestosis diagnosis.

Symptoms of asbestos exposure don’t show up right away. In fact, it can take decades for any to emerge.

Signs over time that may occur include:

  • shortness of breath
  • ongoing cough
  • wheezing
  • extreme fatigue
  • shoulder or chest pain

Experts don’t know exactly how long or how much exposure it takes for asbestos to affect your lungs.

It can take 20–30 years for signs of an asbestos-related condition to appear. And since there are no short-term side effects of the condition, it’s challenging to assess the source of the exposure.

Talk with a doctor if you think you’ve been exposed to asbestos or are experiencing symptoms of exposure.

Your doctor will ask you questions about your personal and medical history to find out whether you could be at risk for an asbestos-related condition. Medical professionals can also run the appropriate tests to diagnose you and eventually provide treatment.

Tests may include:

  • chest X-rays
  • CT scans
  • other lung tests

Although no treatment can reverse the effects of asbestos exposure, there are options for managing symptoms and preventing the progression of asbestos-related diseases. Treatment may include:

Though researchers have found a strong link between asbestos exposure and emphysema, more research is needed to confirm causation.

Experts do know for certain that asbestos exposure can cause lung diseases like lung cancer, mesothelioma, and pleural disease.

Asbestos exposure can be very harmful to your lungs and overall health. If you think you’ve been exposed, visit a doctor as soon as possible.