Asbestos has been linked to serious health problems such as asbestosis for decades, even as the asbestos material has been utilized in dozens of industries and occupations over that time. Everyone breathes in trace amounts of asbestos each day, since it occurs naturally in the environment. But, because asbestos fibers can be inhaled, even short-term exposure to significant levels of asbestos (especially on the job) can lead to breathing problems, coughing, and a chronic but non-cancerous lung condition called asbestosis. This article takes a closer look at asbestosis, and also covers other asbestos-related diseases.
(If you're looking for information on your legal rights and lawsuits related to asbestos exposure, check out Nolo's article Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits: What to Expect.)
Asbestosis is a pulmonary disease that is caused when asbestos fibers are inhaled, causing the lungs to become irritated and inflamed. As the body tries to neutralize the foreign fibers, natural repair processes can lead to further inflammation and cell damage in the lungs. Scar tissue can then develop and thicken, inhibiting the free flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide back and forth between the tiny air sacs in the lungs (called alveoli) and the blood cells.
Symptoms of asbestosis. The buildup of scar tissue in the lungs causes the following asbestosis symptoms:
Keep in mind that symptoms of asbestosis may not show up until years after exposure to (and inhalation of) asbestos fibers.
Diagnosis of asbestosis. Usually, a diagnosis of asbestosis can be made only when a patient has a history of exposure to asbestos, and a clinical exam, typically with an x-ray or CT scan, has indicated a positive result. Other tests used to detect asbestosis can include a pulmonary function test (PFT) or lung biopsy.
Treatment of asbestosis. There is no effective medical treatment for asbestosis, but the first consideration should be to eliminate the patient's exposure to asbestos. And some symptoms of asbestos can be alleviated -- for example, severe shortness of breath can be helped through the administration of extra oxygen.
Asbestosis isn't the only health problem linked to asbestos exposure, nor is it the deadliest. Here is a look at more asbestos-related illnesses, starting with the most serious.
Mesothelioma. The most serious health problem linked to asbestos exposure is mesothelioma, a malignant form of cancer that attacks the linings of the chest wall and lungs or the lining of the abdomen. You can get in-depth information on mesothelioma in Nolo's articles Mesothelioma Symptoms and Causes, Mesothelioma Diagnosis and Screening Methods, and Mesothelioma Treatment Options.
Lung cancer. It is established that exposure to asbestos can cause lung cancer, and the greater the exposure to asbestos, the greater the risk that lung cancer will crop up. (Note: Lung cancer originates in the lung itself and is different from mesothelioma, which attacks the lining around the lung.) When smoking is introduced into the equation, the risk of developing lung cancer skyrockets. People who have been exposed to asbestos on the job and also smoke cigarettes are 50 to 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer when compared with the general population of those who do neither.
Links to other illnesses. Asbestos exposure is known to cause other diseases and conditions, like pleural plaques, pleural fibrosis, pleural effusions, and small airway fibrosis. In addition, a causal connection is suspected -- but not yet established -- between asbestos exposure and gastrointestinal tract cancers.
If you're concerned about asbestosis because you or a loved one have been exposed to high levels of asbestos on the job, or if you want to protect your legal rights in the wake of an asbestosis diagnosis, you may want to talk to an experienced attorney. Find out more about finding and working with an asbestos attorney, as well as lawsuits over asbestos exposure, in Nolo's articles How to Hire a Mesothelioma or Asbestos Lawyer and Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits: What to Expect. When you're ready to talk to an attorney about your case, you can use Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory to find an experienced mesothelioma-asbestos attorney near you.