Asbestos Exposure and Smoking

If both smoking and exposure to asbestos are known for the harmful damage they cause to lungs, what happens when the two happen together?

There is no arguing that smoking cigarettes has a plethora of adverse effects on your health.

Whether it is premature aging, loss of appetite, or a chronic cough, the health risks of smoking strongly eclipse any benefits. One of the most serious and potentially deadliest effects of smoking cigarettes is its effect on the lungs.

Asbestos exposure also negatively impacts lung health, leading to diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. It is not uncommon for someone with asbestos exposure to also be a smoker (or have been a smoker at some point in their lives). This begs the question—if both smoking and exposure to asbestos are known for the harmful damage they cause to lungs, what happens when the two happen together?

Causes of Lung Damage in the U.S.

Lung cancer is one of the most pervasive forms of cancer, second only to breast cancer.

In 2019, over 150,000 Americans died of lung cancer, which accounted for 24% of all cancer deaths in the US. Although smoking is a big culprit of lung cancer diagnosis, there are other ways the disease manifests.

Asbestos exposure is also popular for its impact on lung cancer. Smoking cigarettes and exposure to asbestos can be fatal on their own—but together the impact is especially worrisome.

Smoking and Lung Damage

If you were to go around and ask a group of people what the leading cause of lung cancer is, the majority of them would respond with smoking. For decades, the risks of smoking have been advertised on billboards, TV sets, and in magazines across the country.

Smoking accounts for up to 90% of lung cancer deaths in the United States and people who smoke cigarettes are 15-30x more likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers. 

We’ve all seen those photos of a healthy, pink lung next to a black smoker’s lung in science class or on a billboard—the impact that smoking has on your lungs is very real and it’s clear that smoking leads to lung deterioration.

As we are exploring the link between smoking and asbestos exposure in regards to lung damage, it’s also important to understand how asbestos impacts your lungs on its own. 

Asbestos Exposure and Lung Damage

Asbestos exposure is linked to lung damage and the development of mesothelioma. Many Americans have been exposed to asbestos through their workplaces, schools, homes, and their communities.

Asbestos causes very few problems if it is undisturbed, but as it ages and wears down can cause issues. 

Asbestos fibers are microscopic and are airborne. These fibers can be inhaled and trapped in the lungs, and this on-going exposure can lead those fibers to create tears in the lungs and create inflammation which can lead to lung cancer, mesothelioma, or other asbestos-related diseases. 

One of the scariest statistics to understand about asbestos exposure is the effects seem to appear anywhere between 20-50 years, meaning someone who is exposed may not know how much they are at risk for lung damage due to this exposure. 

Smoking, Asbestos Exposure, and Your Lungs

When a history of smoking and asbestos exposure is combined, it’s not hard to imagine the impact this would have on your lungs.

Asbestos and cigarette smoke are both human carcinogens and together their effects are amplified.

If you already have a history of asbestos exposure, smoking can impact your lungs in a few ways:

  • Smoking weakens the tissue in and around your lungs, which creates a better environment for asbestos fibers to allow themselves to get trapped.
  • Smoking interferes with your body’s ability to clean your lungs due to the increase in mucus production.

Both of these carcinogens coupled together can increase the risk of mortality by both lung cancer and mesothelioma due to the damage they simultaneously do to your lungs. 

Smoking, Asbestos Exposure, and Lung Cancer

Although we know smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, having a history of exposure to asbestos is also a risk for lung cancer. 

It’s important to note that asbestos-only-related lung cancer accounts for 3% of lung cancer, while smoking-related lung cancer accounts for 80-90% of lung cancer cases. That all being said, when you have a smoker who has also been exposed to asbestos, it is impossible to tell for sure what actually caused the cancer. 

However,  there are a few statistics that clearly point to the impact smoking has on those with asbestos exposure. Smokers with asbestos exposure are 14 times more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than non-smokers who have been exposed to asbestos. 

Additionally, a study by Markowitz et al. conducted in 2013 looked at 50,000 medical records of people who were exposed to asbestos at work. People who are exposed to asbestos at work are already 5 times more likely to die of lung cancer, but when smoking was added to the mix that number jumped to 28 times.

Smoking, Asbestos Exposure, and Mesothelioma 

Exposure to asbestos is currently the only known cause of mesothelioma, so we know that smoking alone can’t cause it. That being said, smoking coupled with asbestos exposure can make it much easier for you to be impacted by this disease.  

Smokers have fewer cilia fibers on their lungs, which help protect the lungs against debris and other foreign particles. These fibers are responsible for moving debris away from your lungs, effectively cleaning them out. When these fibers aren’t present, it is much easier for foreign particles—like tiny microscopic asbestos fibers—to cause damage to the lungs.

Smokers also produce more mucus and take in less oxygen, which also can increase the risk of infection and the chance that asbestos fibers will be trapped in the lungs. 

Research also shows that smokers who do not quit after a mesothelioma diagnosis have a much harder time coping with the symptoms of their cancer than non-smokers. Shortness of breath and coughing are more prevalent and lessens the efficacy of cancer treatment. 

Smoking, Asbestos Exposure, and Asbestosis

Asbestosis is another disease that is known to be caused by asbestos exposure, and while it is much less fatal than lung cancer or mesothelioma and overall impacts fewer people, it’s still important to discuss when understanding how smoking impacts people who’ve been exposed to asbestos. 

Asbestosis is a chronic lung condition caused by asbestos exposure which leads to the scarring and inflammation of the lungs over a period of time.

Because a smoker’s lungs are damaged, it is believed that smokers bear a higher risk of asbestosis—a lung damaged by smoking scars and shows inflammation far more quickly than an otherwise healthy lung.

One study shows that people who developed asbestosis and continued to smoke showed a risk of developing lung cancer at a rate of 37 times more than nonsmokers. Even though asbestosis is nowhere near as deadly as mesothelioma or lung cancer, it’s clear that we need to understand the impact smoking has on top of it all.

Asbestosis is shown to get worse as you age especially in those that continue to smoke, but this disease can be treated. Because asbestosis can lead to both mesothelioma and lung cancer, seeking out treatment is super important. If you are a smoker, quitting is absolutely necessary as part of your treatment plan.

Research also shows that secondhand smoke can lead to a higher risk of asbestosis, so if you’re someone who has been exposed to asbestos it’s important to ensure you limit how much you come into contact with secondhand smoke. This will help reduce the negative effects of smoke interfering with your lungs after prolonged exposure to asbestos. 

Reducing the Impact of Smoking and Asbestos Exposure 

The best advice to give if you are concerned about the risks of smoking and asbestos exposure is to share this with your doctor.

Make sure they are regularly screening your lungs so you can have peace of mind over your health. The risks of both asbestos exposure and cigarette smoking increase the longer you’re exposed, so it makes sense to try to reduce and lessen your risk to both as soon as you possibly can.

If you are currently a smoker, it is also highly recommended you work to quit. Even without a history of asbestos exposure, the sooner you quit more likely you can reverse some of the damage done to your lungs. 

If you are concerned about potential asbestos exposure, try to work through the source of the exposure. If it’s a past exposure, it’s important your doctor understands your level of risk. If it’s a current exposure, try to eliminate that from your day to day as much as possible.

Smoking and asbestos exposure alone have serious impacts on your lungs and can lead to lung diseases. This combination is especially dangerous when combined, so it’s important to understand your risks and talk to your doctor.  

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