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.

Q & A

Asbestosis is fibrosis of the lung tissue caused by high levels of inhaled asbestos fibres that the body is unable to break down. These fibres cause the formation of scar tissue around them and can dramatically impair lung function.
Onset of symptoms can sometimes take decades but shortness of breath is the primary concern, severe advanced cases can even cause respiratory failure or right-sided heart failure.
Asbestosis is a debilitating disease. There is no treatment but oxygen therapy and some nebulized medications can help. Patients are also at an increased risk of lung cancer.
Yes, asbestosis qualifies for compensation. The first lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers occurred in 1929.


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.

Q & A

Mesothelioma is cancer of the mesothelial cells that make up the membranes of the organ linings. Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of the most common type, pleural mesothelioma, which affects the tissues of the lungs.
As with asbestosis, onset of symptoms usually takes decades... generally 30-40 years. Sufferers can experience shortness of breath, chest pain, persistent cough and unexplained weight loss.
The severe effects of mesothelioma cannot be cured, only mitigated through chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The outlook is poor with most people dying within three years of diagnosis. In the UK, around 2,300 people die from the condition.
Yes, legal action can be taken against previous employers but the UK Government also offers compensation packages averaging £123,000 for those who cannot trace a liable employer (see link on left menu).

Lung Cancer

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.

Q & A

The risk of lung cancer as a result of asbestos inhalation increases in proportion to the level of exposure. Like mesothelioma, lung cancer instigated by the damage caused by asbestos fibres can take decades to develop.
These may include a persistent cough, shortness of breath, ongoing chest pain, frequent chest infections and unexplained weight loss.
As with other asbestos-related diseases, sufferers frequently only become aware of the condition in its later stages making treatment difficult. Surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy are all options with approximately 25% achieving five-year survival. Age, gender and smoking history are all factors.
Attributing lung cancer to asbestos exposure can be difficult but according to the HSE "Changes in the criteria for compensation resulted in a strong increase in new cases assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit from 2006 (IIDB)."

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.

Q & A

DPT occurs due to the adhesion between the two pleural linings and the loss of the pleural space. This inhibits the ability of the pleura surrounding the lungs to slide over one another and thus restricts chest movement and breathing.
Common symptoms include breathlessness, particularly during exercise or exertion and also chest pain.
DPT is benign but should be diagnosed and treated to monitor the patients' condition as it is sometimes a pre-cursor for more serious asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer. Life expectancy is very good however the condition can be debilitating.
Yes, you may be able to claim compensation depending upon the severity of the disability suffered.

Pleural Plaques

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.

Q & A

Pleural plaques are caused by breathing in asbestos fibres that penetrate the lung tissue and cause localised scar tissue, known as fibrosis. This tissue is not debilitating when limited to small areas.
It is not normally associated with symptoms although some patients cite chest pain as a resulting effect.
The prognosis for pleural plaques is extremely good in comparison to other asbestos-related illnesses, it is not regarded as requiring treatment or being indicative of further disease.
No, pleural plaques are not currently compensated.