Asbestos: Health Effects
If sealed and in good condition, asbestos is totally harmless but when disturbed or damaged the fibres can become airborne, posing a serious risk to those who breathe them in. This guide will help to explain the dangers of respirable asbestos fibres and describe the main diseases that they can cause. Asbestos is the number one cause of work-related death in the UK. The invisible fibres can be lethal and hence it is often referred to as the hidden killer.
Asbestosis is the scarring of lung tissue resulting from the inhalation of respirable asbestos fibres. These fibres stay within the lungs and cause inflammation and thickening of the alveoli causing chronic shortness of breath.
It is usually the result of high levels of prolonged exposure and frequently affects those who worked with asbestos in industry. It is not possible to contract asbestosis from ambient exposure to environmental levels of asbestos dust.
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Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that most commonly develops within the pleural lining of the lungs and is typically caused by exposure to asbestos. Shortness of breath, chest pain and fluid between the lungs and chest wall are signs of the disease.
Most people with mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos fibres occupationally, however, family members can also be at risk through 'paraoccupational secondary exposure' by washing contaminated clothing for example.
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Lung cancer is a malignant lung tumour caused by uncontrolled cell growth that can spread through the body by the process of metastasis. Primary lung cancer is cancer that originates in the lungs and those who have worked with asbestos are at greater risk.
As with smoking, asbestos exposure increases your chances of contracting the disease. Asbestos workers are 5 times more likely to get lung cancer, those who smoke increase their risk by 11 times and those who do both by 53 times.
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Diffuse Pleural Thickening
Diffuse pleural thickening (DPT) is the inflammation and thickening of the 'pleura' which envelope the lungs in two layers. All types of asbestos can cause pleural thickening and it can take 20-40 years after exposure to develop.
DPT reduces lung capacity and impacts pulmonary function. The adhesions within the pleura cause restricted movement and result in breathlessness during exertion. Diagnosis is typically done through medical imaging due to the similarity in symptoms of asbestos-related lung diseases.
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Pleural plaques are the most common condition that results from asbestos exposure. The asbestos fibres cause localised fibrosis of the parietal pleura forming calcified areas that are generally regarded to be asymptomatic.
In contrast to pleural thickening, pleural plaques do not typically reduce lung function but they are an indicator of asbestos exposure. However, there is little evidence to suggest more serious disease will result. No treatment is required but patients are recommended to live a healthy lifestyle and avoid smoking.