What Are Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases?

What Are Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases?

Asbestos-related lung diseases are diseases caused by exposure to asbestos (as-BES-tos) fibers. Asbestos is a mineral that, in the past, was widely used in many industries.

Asbestos is made up of tiny fibers that can escape into the air. When breathed in, these fibers can stay in your lungs for a long time. If the fibers build up in your lungs, they can lead to:

Pleural plaque.
In this condition, the tissue around the lungs and diaphragm (the muscle below your lungs) thickens and hardens. This tissue is called the pleura. Pleural plaque usually causes no symptoms. Rarely, as the pleura thickens, it can trap and compress part of the lung. This may show up as a mass on an x-ray image.

Pleural effusion.
In this condition, excess fluid builds up in the pleural space. The pleural space is the area between the lungs and the chest wall.

Asbestosis (as-bes-TOE-sis).
In this condition, the lung tissue becomes scarred. People who have asbestosis are at greater risk for lung cancer, especially if they smoke.

Lung cancer.
This type of cancer forms in the lung tissue, usually in the cells lining the air passages.

Mesothelioma (MEZ-o-thee-lee-O-ma).
This disease is cancer of the pleura.
Asbestos also can cause cancer in the lining of the abdominal cavity. This lining is known as the peritoneum (PER-ih-to-NE-um).

Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases

    Figure A shows the location of the lungs, airways, pleura, and diaphragm in the body. Figure B shows lungs with asbestos-related diseases, including pleural plaque, lung cancer, asbestosis, plaque on the diaphragm, and mesothelioma.
Figure A shows the location of the lungs, airways, pleura, and diaphragm in the body. Figure B shows lungs with asbestos-related diseases, including pleural plaque, lung cancer, asbestosis, plaque on the diaphragm, and mesothelioma.

Until the 1970s, asbestos was widely used in many industries in the United States. For example, it was used to insulate pipes, boilers, and ships; make brakes; strengthen cement; and fireproof many items, such as drywall.

People who worked around asbestos during that time are at risk for asbestos-related lung diseases. People at highest risk include:

Unprotected workers who made, installed, or removed products containing asbestos. People who worked near others who did these jobs also are at risk.
Family members of workers who were exposed to asbestos. Family members may have breathed in asbestos fibers that workers brought home on their clothes, shoes, or bodies.
People who live in areas with large deposits of asbestos in the soil. This risk is limited to areas where the deposits were disturbed and asbestos fibers got into the air.
Asbestos fibers also can be released into the air when older buildings containing asbestos-made products are destroyed. Removing these products during building renovations also can release asbestos fibers into the air.

Generally, being around asbestos-made products isn’t a danger as long as the asbestos is enclosed. This prevents the fibers from getting into the air.

People in the United States are less likely to have asbestos-related lung diseases now because the mineral is no longer widely used.

The use of asbestos is heavily restricted, and rules and standards are now in place to protect workers and others from asbestos exposure. Asbestos is found in only a few new products, such as gaskets used in brakes.

However, many countries do not yet restrict asbestos use. People in those countries are still exposed to the mineral.


The outlook for people who have asbestos-related lung diseases can vary. It will depend on which disease a person has and how much it has damaged the lungs.

No treatments can reverse the effects of asbestos on your lungs. However, treatments may help relieve symptoms, slow the progress of the disease, and prevent complications.

If you've been exposed to asbestos, let your doctor know. He or she can watch you for signs of asbestos-related problems and start treatment early, if needed. Early treatment may help prevent or delay complications.

Quitting smoking and making other lifestyle changes may help people who are at high risk for asbestos-related lung diseases. These lifestyle changes may prevent more serious diseases, such as cancer.

What are the types of asbestos fibers?

What are the types of asbestos fibers?
Asbestos Lung Cancer.
There are two major groups of asbestos fibers,:
  • - amphiboles
  • - chrysotile fibers.

Chrysotile (white asbestos), also called "Serpentine" fibers, are long and curled. The amphiboles, long straight fibers (including actinolite, amosite, anthrophyllite, crocidolite, and tremolite) are much more likely to cause cancer of the lining of the lung (mesothelioma) and scarring of the lining of the lung (pleural fibrosis). Either group of fibers can cause disease of the lung, such as asbestosis.

The risk of developing asbestos-related lung cancer varies between fiber types. Studies of groups of patients exposed chrysotile fibers show only a moderate increase in risk. On the other hand, exposure to amphibole fibers or to both types of fibers increases the risk of asbestos lung cancer by two fold. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a standard for workplace exposure to asbestos (0.2 fibers/milliliter of air), there is debate over what constitutes a safe level of exposure. While some believe asbestos-related disease is a "threshold phenomenon," which requires a certain level of exposure for disease to occur, others believe there is no safe level of asbestos.

In most buildings, asbestos does not become airborne. However, surfaces that are damaged or disturbed can cause asbestos to become inhalable. High concentrations can occur after cutting, sanding, or remodeling asbestos- containing materials.

Reducing asbestos exposure involves either the removal or sealing of asbestos-containing materials. Inexperienced attempts to remove asbestos can release dangerous levels of the fibers.
Asbestos Lung Cancer.


What is asbestosis?

What is asbestosis?

Asbestosis is a process of lung tissue scarring caused by asbestos fibers. Because many other diseases also lead to lung scarring, other causes must be excluded first when a patient is found to have lung scarring (pulmonary fibrosis). Patients with particular x-ray findings or biopsy results must also have a remote history of asbestos exposure and a characteristically delayed development of the condition in considering asbestosis as a diagnosis. Smoking appears to increase the frequency and/or the rate of progression of asbestosis, possibly by preventing the efficient elimination of inhaled fibers from the airways.
Asbestos Lung Cancer.

What are symptoms and signs of asbestosis?

What are symptoms and signs of asbestosis?

The clinical symptoms usually include slowly progressing shortness of breath and cough, often 20 to 40 years after exposure to asbestos. Breathlessness advances throughout the disease, even without further asbestos inhalation. In the absence of cigarette smoking, sputum (mucus coughed up from the lungs) production and wheezing are uncommon. The exception is workers who have been exposed to very high concentrations of asbestos fibers. Those workers may also develop symptoms as soon as 10 years after exposure. Other indications of asbestosis include abnormal lung sounds on examination, changes in the ends of the fingers and toes ("clubbing"), a blue tinge to the fingers or lips ("cyanosis"), and failure of the right side of the heart ("cor pulmonale").
Asbestos Lung Cancer.

What is malignant mesothelioma?

What is malignant mesothelioma?

Asbestos is the only known risk factor for malignant mesothelioma (Asbestos Lung Cancer) , a cancer that affects the tissue lining the lung (pleura) or abdomen (peritoneum). Malignant mesothelioma is not associated with cigarette smoking but is strongly linked with the degree of asbestos exposure. However, 20% to 40% of patients with malignant mesothelioma have no prior asbestos exposure. In malignant mesothelioma, there is a very long duration between exposure and the onset of disease, usually greater than 30 years.
Asbestos Lung Cancer.

What are the types of asbestos-related lung disease?

What are the types of asbestos-related lung disease?
Asbestos Lung Cancer
Lung disease from exposure to asbestos can be divided into three main types:
1) asbestosis,
2) disease of the lining of the lung (pleura), and
3) lung cancer.

1. Asbestosis is a process of widespread scarring of the lungs.

2. Disease of the lining of the lungs, called the pleura, has a variety of signs and symptoms and is the result of inflammation and the hardening (calcification) and/or thickening of the lining tissue.

3. Lung cancer, either of the internal portions of the lungs or the outer lining (pleura).

All of the commonly available commercial forms of asbestos have been linked to cancerous and non-cancerous lung disease.

Asbestos-related lung disease / asbestos lung cancer occurred at very high rates toward the middle of the 20th century, when patients who were exposed decades earlier to asbestos eventually developed disease. British asbestos workers were among the first who were observed to have lung cancer related to asbestos.

Most current patients were once exposed to asbestos in:

* mines,
* mills,
* factories, or
* homes with asbestos, either in the process of carrying, installing, or removing asbestos, or while cleaning items laden with asbestos dust.

Some workers have been exposed to high concentrations of asbestos in:

* automotive repair,
* boilermaking,
* construction,
* pipefitting,
* launderers of asbestos-containing clothing.

Continuing sources of exposure are asbestos removal and general construction industries. The delay between exposure to asbestos and the development of cancer is generally 20 or more years.

The number of deaths from asbestosis / asbestos lung cancer has increased over the past two decades, but is believed to have plateaued due to increased awareness of the risks.

Who is at risk for an asbestos-related disease?

Who is at risk for an asbestos-related disease?

Asbestos Lung Cancer
Everyone is exposed to asbestos at some time during their life. Low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water, and soil. However, most people do not become ill from their exposure. People who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they work directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact.

Since the early 1940s, millions of American workers have been exposed to asbestos. Health hazards from asbestos fibers have been recognized in workers exposed in the shipbuilding trades, asbestos mining and milling, manufacturing of asbestos textiles and other asbestos products, insulation work in the construction and building trades, and a variety of other trades. Demolition workers, drywall removers, asbestos removal workers, firefighters, and automobile workers also may be exposed to asbestos fibers. Studies evaluating the cancer risk experienced by automobile mechanics exposed to asbestos through brake repair are limited, but the overall evidence suggests there is no safe level of asbestos exposure . As a result of Government regulations and improved work practices, today’s workers (those without previous exposure) are likely to face smaller risks than did those exposed in the past.

Individuals involved in the rescue, recovery, and cleanup at the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City are another group at risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. Because asbestos was used in the construction of the North Tower of the WTC, when the building was attacked, hundreds of tons of asbestos were released into the atmosphere. Those at greatest risk include :
  • firefighters,
  • police officers,
  • paramedics,
  • construction workers, and
  • volunteers who worked in the rubble at Ground Zero.
Others at risk include residents in close proximity to the WTC towers and those who attended schools nearby. These individuals will need to be followed to determine the long-term health consequences of their asbestos exposure .

One study found that nearly 70 percent of WTC rescue and recovery workers suffered new or worsened respiratory symptoms while performing work at the WTC site. The study describes the results of the WTC Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program, which was established to identify and characterize possible WTC-related health effects in responders. The study found that about 27 percent of those tested had abnormal lung function tests, and 62 percent of those without previous health problems developed respiratory symptoms . However, it is important to note that these symptoms may be related to exposure to debris components other than asbestos.

Although it is clear that the health risks from asbestos exposure increase with heavier exposure and longer exposure time, investigators have found asbestos-related diseases in individuals with only brief exposures. Generally, those who develop asbestos-related diseases show no signs of illness for a long time after their first exposure. It can take from 10 to 40 years or more for symptoms of an asbestos-related condition to appear .
There is some evidence that family members of workers heavily exposed to asbestos face an increased risk of developing mesothelioma . This risk is thought to result from exposure to asbestos fibers brought into the home on the shoes, clothing, skin, and hair of workers. To decrease these exposures, Federal law regulates workplace practices to limit the possibility of asbestos being brought home in this way. Some employees may be required to shower and change their clothes before they leave work, store their street clothes in a separate area of the workplace, or wash their work clothes at home separately from other clothes .

Cases of mesothelioma / asbestos lung cancer have also been seen in individuals without occupational asbestos exposure who live close to asbestos mines .