There is limited evidence that asbestos exposure may be a possible cause of leukemia, a cancer of blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and the lymphatic system. Occupational exposure and inhalation of asbestos fibers are considered to be the most common causes of asbestos-related disease. However, oral ingestion of asbestos fibers in occupational and domestic settings may also contribute to asbestos-related leukemia.

Leukemia and Asbestos Exposure

Everyone is exposed to asbestos in the air, soil, and water at low levels. Inhalation and oral ingestion of asbestos fibers from these elements could potentially contribute to the development of leukemia. However, it is prolonged, daily exposure to asbestos that most often leads to disease. Usually, it takes 10 to 40 years after exposure for symptoms of an asbestos-related disease to develop. 

Asbestos exposure is weakly linked with the development of blood cancer. The association is strongest between long-term occupational exposure and the development of leukemia, particularly chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). CLL is the most common kind of chronic leukemia in adults. Of note, early environmental exposure to asbestos in childhood has not been associated with an increased risk of leukemia.1

Risk Factors for Asbestos-Related Diseases

Occupational exposure to asbestos is the greatest known risk factor for developing asbestos-related leukemia. Professions with the highest risk of exposure to asbestos include 

  • Construction
  • Demolition
  • Manufacturing
  • Mining and milling 
  • Automobile repair 
  • Firefighting

Additional risk factors for asbestos-related leukemia may include smoking, alcohol consumption, and highly sedentary professions and lifestyles.2 The disease could potentially be prevented by avoiding exposure to asbestos. Unfortunately, once an individual is exposed to asbestos, there is no known way to prevent asbestos-related disease from developing.

Symptoms of Leukemia

Leukemia’s effect on the bone marrow and lymphatic tissues is most visible in how it affects an individual’s white blood cells, the body’s cancer-fighting and cancer-killing cells.

The hallmark symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, the type of leukemia most strongly associated with exposure to asbestos, include

  • Low red blood cell count
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Painless enlargement of lymphatic tissues, including the spleen and lymph nodes

Additional, general symptoms of leukemia may include

  • Pale appearance
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Bruising
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Low white blood cell and platelet counts
  • Nose bleeds
  • Recurrent infections

If you have experienced occupational exposure to asbestos and are currently experiencing symptoms concerning for leukemia, it is important that you make an appointment to see your healthcare provider. He or she can assess your overall health and your risk for leukemia and other asbestos-related diseases. 

Leukemia and Asbestos