Health Issues Caused by Asbestos
The health problems caused by long-term exposure to asbestos are already well documented. The fibers can be easily inhaled, this way getting into the lungs where they can cause asbestosis or pleural diseases which can lead to respiratory problems or even death. Inhalation of these asbestos fibers can also increase the risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma.
It is known that asbestos exposure can happen almost everywhere, including the home. However, individuals are predisposed to develop asbestos-related health issues if they are exposed to asbestos for a long period of time or to high concentrations of asbestos fibers.
This is a chronic lung disease which basically means that scar-like tissue forms in the lungs, leading to pulmonary fibrosis. This way, the elasticity of the lungs is decreased and the breathing process becomes more and more difficult. Therefore, the most common symptom is shortness of breath, while "crackles" or "rales", sounds that can be heard using a stethoscope, are common physical signs and can be detected at the end of a full inspiration. However, people suffering from fully developed asbestosis can also experience chest pain, finger clubbing, cough and bluish skin coloration.
In order to diagnose asbestosis, X-rays tests of the chest are used. They usually show small irregular spots called opacities, meaning that the x-rays could not penetrate the tissue. These spots are most often found in the middle and lower area of the lungs. To determine how bad the lungs are affected, function tests are also used.
Asbestos and Lung Cancer
There are several factors influencing the probability of developing lung cancer after being exposed to asbestos:
- Age of individual at the time of exposure.
- Size and type of asbestos fibers
- The time that has passed since the exposure.
- Duration and level of exposure.
- Smoking history of the individual.
The average latency period for asbestos-related cancer is 20 to 30 years. Lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure usually develops after a long-term contact with the fibers if, for example, the exposure has happened within the house on a low level. For people working with asbestos, however, the latency period can shorten to less than 4 years. Moreover, cases of lung cancer have been reported in households due to contact with the work clothes of the family members working with asbestos.
This type of cancer is relatively rare but often encountered in patients who work with asbestos and also in household members. It results from the mesothelial cells which form the lining of the pleural, pericardial and peritoneal cavities. The latency period for this disease is usually of 30 to 40 years, depending on the level of asbestos exposure.
Early diagnosis of mesothelioma is crucial. Studies show that the survival period after the diagnosis can be associated with the exposure intensity. Also, smoking appears not to influence the risk of getting mesothelioma after asbestos exposure, in comparison with the situation for lung cancer.
Other Health Issues Caused by Asbestos Exposure
Some studies have shown that exposure to asbestos can increase the incidence of laryngitis.
Four types of non-cancerous affections of the lining of the pleura can develop due to inhalation of asbestos fibers:
- Pleural effusion
- Folded lung
- Pleural plaques
- Fibrosis of the pleura
These abnormalities can be found in 10-60% of the people working with asbestos and are also common in their family members which might be exposed to the asbestos fibers carried home on work clothes.
Immune system issues
Several studies regarding the influence of asbestos exposure on the immune system have been done and most of them show that asbestos workers have a reduced functioning of the immune system. However, whether the changes of the immune function are caused by asbestos exposure or not has not been determined yet.
Another condition which might be related to asbestos exposure is retroperitoneal fibrosis. This rare condition affects the membrane lining of the abdominal cavity and consists in the development of a fibrous mass behind it. Because of this mass, kidney failure can result. There are several case reports indicating that exposure to asbestos fibers can be an influencing factor for retroperitoneal fibrosis.