Exposure to asbestos increases one’s risk of lung damage and asbestosis, a kind of pulmonary fibrosis. Asbestosis is a lung disease caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers. It is characterized by inflammation and scarring of the lungs, resulting in chest tightness and shortness of breath. Over time, asbestosis can lead to complications of heart disease, cancer, and respiratory failure.
How Asbestosis Develops
As these harmful fibers deposit into the lungs, they begin to cause scarring. The body’s immune system tries to contain and destroy the fibers, damaging the lungs in the process. As the lungs scar more and more, they stiffen, making it harder to breathe. The medical term for this type of scarring is pulmonary fibrosis.
Asbestosis Causes: Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos is a mineral frequently used in the construction, shipbuilding, and automotive industries for its resistance to chemicals, heat, and fire, and its inability to conduct electricity. Given its significant health concerns, in 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency banned all new applications of asbestos. However, asbestos exposure is still one of the most common occupational hazards.
Everyone is exposed to low levels of asbestos in the air, soil, and water. However, it is prolonged, daily exposure to asbestos that most often leads to asbestosis. Professions with the highest risk of exposure to asbestos include
- Mining and milling
- Automobile repair
Usually, it takes 10 to 40 years after exposure for symptoms of an asbestos-related disease to develop.1
No Known Cure
Asbestosis can be treated but not cured. Treatment focuses on managing symptoms of the disease and may include
- Drug therapy: oral steroids may help to reduce symptoms.
- Oxygenation: supplemental oxygen and pulmonary rehabilitation can help to reduce symptoms, maintain one’s activity level, prevent some heart and lung complications, and improve quality of life.
- Smoking cessation: quitting smoking can help improve prognosis.
- Surgery: surgical intervention can help to prevent lung collapse in severe cases of the disease.
- Lung transplantation: when all other treatments have failed to provide symptom relief, lung transplantation may be an option.
Although asbestosis cannot be cured, it can be prevented by avoiding exposure to asbestos. Unfortunately, once an individual is exposed to asbestos, there is no known way to prevent the disease from developing. Maximum survival after symptom onset is about 4 years.2
Complications of Asbestosis
Potential complications of asbestosis include
- Heart disease: heart failure may develop secondary to scarring and compression of pulmonary vessels.
- Cancer: asbestosis is associated with the development of lung cancer and malignant pleural mesothelioma, one of the deadliest diseases attributed to asbestos exposure.
- Respiratory failure: as lung scarring worsens, lung expansion and oxygen diffusion are hindered, ultimately resulting in oxygen-deficient respiratory failure.