Asbestos Exposure and Health Risks

Asbestos is a known human carcinogen and can cause chronic lung disease as well as lung and other cancers.

Asbestos fibers are released into the air during activities that disturb asbestos-containing materials. The asbestos fibers can then be inhaled without knowing and trapped in the lungs. If swallowed, they can become embedded into the digestive tract as well. 

The CDC states that “most people don’t show any signs or symptoms of asbestos-related disease for 10 to 20 years or more after exposure. When symptoms do appear, they can be similar to those of other health problems. Only a doctor can tell if your symptoms are related to asbestos.” They identify the possibility of asbestos exposure by taking a thorough history of the person’s medical, work, cultural and environmental history. The four most common asbestos-caused diseases are: 

  • "Asbestosis is scarring in the lungs caused by breathing asbestos fibers. Oxygen and carbon dioxide do not pass in and out of scarred lungs easily, so breathing becomes harder. Asbestosis usually occurs in people who have had very high exposures over a long time, but years may pass before any symptoms appear.

  • Pleural disease is a non-cancerous lung condition that causes changes in the membrane surrounding the lungs and chest cavity (pleura). The membrane may become thicker throughout (diffuse pleural thickening) or in isolated areas (pleural plaques), or fluid may build up around the lungs (known as a pleural effusion). Not everyone with pleural changes will have problems breathing, but some may have less efficient lung function.

  • Lung cancer is a malignant tumor that invades and blocks the lung’s air passages. Smoking tobacco combined with asbestos exposure greatly increases the chance of developing lung cancer.

  • Mesothelioma, is a rare cancer of the membrane that covers the lungs and chest cavity (pleura), the membrane lining the abdominal cavity (peritoneum), or membranes surrounding other internal organs.” 

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Symptoms and Signs

Common symptoms of asbestosis include:

  • shortness of breath
  • tightness in your chest
  • persistent dry cough
  • chest pain
  • appetite loss
  • finger clubbing (enlarged fingertips)
  • nail deformities

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Concerned about exposure?

The CDC states people concerned about asbestos exposure should  “visit their doctor or other medical provider.” If exposure has already occurred, there is no possible way to remove asbestos from the lung. The CDC urges patients to take the following preventative measures:

  • Have regular medical exams

  • Get regular vaccinations against flu and pneumococcal pneumonia

  • Quit smoking

  • Avoid further asbestos exposure

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