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Medical Consequences of Asbestos Exposure

The major diseases related to asbestos exposure are lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.  In addition, several other non-cancerous lung and pleural disorders may also be caused due to asbestos exposure.  The symptoms of these diseases which include shortness of breath, wheezing and pain or tightening in the chest, may become apparent only decades after the initial exposure[1]

Long-term, regular asbestos exposure is often required to develop diseases such as asbestosis or mesothelioma.  Exposure to asbestos may take place at the work place, home or in the community where a person resides[2].  Workers engaged in shipbuilding, asbestos mining and milling, manufacturing of asbestos textiles and other asbestos products and insulation work are highly prone to such exposure.  Demolition workers, drywall removers, asbestos removal workers, firefighters, and automobile workers are also threatened by exposure to asbestos fibers.  Moreover, family members of these workers are also at an increased risk of developing such deadly diseases. 

Similarly, people who live close to asbestos mines or in areas having a high concentration of asbestos deposits are at a higher risk of developing exposure related diseases.  Further, smokers who have also been exposed to asbestos have a higher risk of developing lung cancer than non-smokers.  [3]

Yet another more specific category include individuals involved in the rescue, recovery and cleanup of the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center (WTC) attack site in New York City, because asbestos material was used in the construction of the first 40 floors of the World Trade Towers[4].  Residents in close proximity to the WTC as well as those who attended schools nearby are also at an increased risk of developing these diseases[5].

Diseases commonly associated with Asbestos exposure are:

  • Asbestosis: Asbestosis is a lung disease first found in textile workers.  Asbestosis is a scarring of the lung tissue from an acid produced by the body’s attempt to dissolve the fibers.  When inhaled, asbestos fibre embed themselves in the alveoli, the tiny air sacs where gas exchange occurs at the interface between the lung and the capillaries.  The body’s natural defense mechanism responds to this by producing macrophages that attempt to engulf the fibres.  In this defensive mechanism an acid is produced which causes scarring of the lungs.  The scarring may eventually become so severe that the lungs can no longer function.  The time taken for the disease to develop (latency period) is often 10-20 years.
  • Mesothelioma: A cancer of the mesothelial lining of the lungs and the chest cavity, the peritoneum (abdominal cavity) or the pericardium (a sac surrounding the heart).  Unlike lung cancer, mesothelioma has no association with smoking.  The only established causal factor is exposure to asbestos or similar fibers.  The latency period for mesothelioma may be 20-50 years. The prognosis for mesothelioma is grim, with most patients dying within 12 months of diagnosis.
  • Cancer: Cancer of the lung, gastrointestinal tract, kidney and larynx have been linked to asbestos.  Lung cancer causes the largest number of asbestos-related deaths.  The incidence of lung cancer in people who are or were directly involved in the mining, milling, manufacturing and use of asbestos and its related products is much higher than in the general population.  The most common symptoms of lung cancer are coughing and a noticeable change in breathing.  Other symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent chest pains, hoarseness, and anemia.  People who have been exposed to asbestos and are also exposed to other carcinogens such as those in cigarette smoke have a significantly greater risk of developing lung cancer.  One study indicates that asbestos workers who smoke are about 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer than people who neither smoke nor have been exposed to asbestos. The latency period for cancer is often 15-30 years.
  • Pleural Disease – Asbestos exposure can cause a thickening or calcification of the pleura, a membrane lining the lungs, pleural plaques and pleural effusion.  Pleural plaques and thickening are scarring of the pleura, the membrane that lines the inside of the chest wall and covers the outside of the lungs. Pleural effusion is the presence of liquid in the pleural space.  Pleural plaques and thickening can be diagnosed by a chest X-ray and can be accompanied by symptoms and diminished pulmonary function.



[1] National Cancer Institute; Asbestos Exposure: Questions & Answers; available at www.cancer.gov.

See also Ezine Articles, Common Symptoms of Asbestos Related Illnesses; available at http://ezinearticles.com/?Common-Symptoms-of-Asbestos-Related-Illnesses&id=688631

[2] National Cancer Institute; Asbestos Exposure. See supra.

[3] http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_2_2x_What_Causes_Non-small_Cell_Lung_Cancer.asp

[4] Asbestos.com “The World Trade Center-Ongoing Health Issues” available at http://www.asbestos.com/world-trade-center/health-issues.php

[5] Id.

Inside Medical Consequences of Asbestos Exposure