Asbestos is a group of natural minerals made of long, thin fibers. It’s been used by humans for more than 4,500 years. Since the industrial revolution, asbestos has been used to insulate buildings such as homes, schools, and factories.

In the late twentieth century, mounting evidence began to show that breathing in asbestos dust could cause lung damage. It’s thought that after many years of asbestos exposure, chronic inflammation in your lungs can lead to cellular damage. This damage may increase your risk for developing lung cancer and other lung issues.

Today, there are strict laws about how asbestos can be used in the United States. However, asbestos still exists in many older buildings built before the 1970s.

Let’s take a deeper look into the connection between asbestos and lung cancer.

The link between asbestos exposure and lung cancer is well-established. However, researchers are still trying to understand how much asbestos exposure will increase your risk for developing lung cancer.

Researchers have performed two types of studies to try to understand the effects of asbestos on the body:

  1. They’ve examined groups of people who have been exposed to asbestos repeatedly over many years and compared their rates of lung cancer to rates in the general population.
  2. They’ve exposed animals or individual cells to large doses of asbestos in a lab to see whether it stimulates cancer growth.

Both types of research have found evidence that asbestos exposure can increase your chances of developing cancer.

Human research

Researchers have suspected that asbestos exposure may increase your chances of developing lung cancer since the 1930s. Throughout the mid- and late twentieth century, they continued to gather evidence to support this theory.

Studies have found that people exposed to asbestos develop lung cancer at higher rates than those who aren’t exposed. Your risk for developing cancer seems to increase with a greater amount of time and amount of asbestos you’ve been exposed to.

In the 1990s, a study examined 8,580 people employed in the asbestos industry over 60 years in Denmark. The researchers found that asbestos exposure was linked to an increased chance for developing a type of lung cancer called adenocarcinoma.

Asbestos exposure and smoking tobacco together

Asbestos exposure and smoking tobacco may put you at a significantly higher risk for developing cancer than either risk factor alone.

A large study published in the 1970s compared rates of lung cancer among insulation workers exposed to asbestos who smoked or didn’t smoked.

The researchers found the following:

  • People who smoked were 10 times more likely to develop cancer than nonsmokers.
  • People exposed to asbestos were five times more likely to develop cancer than people not exposed.
  • People who were exposed to asbestos and smoked were 50 times more likely to develop cancer than people not exposed to either risk factor.

Animal studies

Rodent studies have also found that asbestos exposure increases the risk of developing lung cancer. All six types of asbestos have led to the development of tumors in animals.

It’s thought that types of asbestos with smaller and straighter fibers increase your risk the most because they’re most likely to reach the deep parts of your lungs.

Although asbestos exposure increases your risk for developing lung cancer, 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer cases in the United States are attributed to smoking.

Small and non-small cell lung cancers

Lung cancers can be divided into two main categories, depending on how they look under a microscope:

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type and can be further divided into subcategories:

A 2017 study examined the most common types of lung cancers in men who were regularly exposed to asbestos. Approximately 90 percent of the men also smoked.

The researchers found that 45.9 percent of the men developed adenocarcinoma. The next most common type of lung cancer was squamous cell carcinoma, which applied to 38.4 percent of the men.

Mesothelioma

Asbestos exposure is the only known risk factor for a rare but aggressive form of cancer called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the membranes that line your major organs, including your lungs.

A number of risk factors seem to affect your chances for developing asbestos-related lung cancer. These risk factors include:

  • how much asbestos you’re exposed to
  • how long you’re exposed to it
  • the type of asbestos you’re exposed to
  • the source of the exposure
  • your genetics
  • whether you smoke or have pre-existing lung disease

Early symptoms of lung cancer may include:

When to schedule a medical appointment

If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should contact a healthcare professional immediately:

Healthline

To diagnose lung cancer, your doctor will likely start by taking your medical history and performing a physical examination. During the physical examination, the doctor will check your vitals and listen to your breathing.

If they find anything concerning, they may send you for other tests, such as:

  • CT scan. A CT scan is a type of X-ray that can provide a detailed image of your lungs.
  • Bronchoscopy. During a bronchoscopy, a doctor inserts a thin tube with a light through your nose or mouth and into your lungs to view your airways.
  • Sputum cytology. This test involves coughing up phlegm for lab analysis.
  • Lung biopsy. During a lung biopsy, a doctor will take a small tissue sample of your lung to be analyzed in a lab for signs of cancer.

The right treatment for lung cancer depends on how far along it’s progressed. Some of the most common options include:

  • Surgery. Lung cancer surgery removes the part of your lung with cancer.
  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a drug therapy that destroys rapidly growing cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses concentrated beams of radiation to destroy cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy is a drug treatment that aims to destroy genes and proteins that help cancer cells grow.
  • Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is a drug therapy that aims to boost your immune system’s ability to target and fight off cancer cells.

The earlier you catch lung cancer, the better.

The 5-year survival rate of lung cancer is about 20.5 percent. If you catch lung cancer in the early stages, the survival rate is about 59 percent.

A healthcare professional can help you find out how far along your cancer has progressed and recommend the best treatment for you.

Asbestos exposure is associated with an increased risk of developing lung cancer and a rare form of cancer called mesothelioma.

Researchers are still trying to understand how much asbestos exposure will increase your risk for developing lung cancer. Evidence suggests that the longer and the more asbestos you’re exposed to, the higher your risk.

If you’ve noticed any of the early warning signs of lung cancer and you’ve been exposed to asbestos, it’s important to see a healthcare professional as soon as possible.