Asbestos is a class of minerals that can be used to create durable materials that are heat-, fire- and chemical-resistant. Those properties made it popular in construction, the military and chemical and power plants, where it was used for decades until the government determined that it is extremely hazardous to our health.
Today most companies have stopped using asbestos, but thousands of American workers still feel its effects each year in the form of asbestos-related diseases.
How Asbestos Exposure Impacts Your Health
Asbestos breaks down into microscopic fibers, even smaller than dust particles, that can’t be seen by the human eye. They’re so tiny and light, they can linger in the air for days after they’ve been kicked up—and you can inhale them without even noticing.
Once inhaled, they travel deep into your lungs and lodge in the lung tissue. They can even get into your bloodstream and travel to other parts of your body. There, they cause irritation, inflammation and scarring. Over time, this can lead to asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer or others.
Who Is Most at Risk for Asbestos-Related Diseases?
People who have been exposed to high amounts of asbestos over a long period of time are most at risk. Workers who deal directly with asbestos, their families, military members and communities near asbestos deposits are considered the highest risk. Smokers and those with pre-existing conditions are also more likely to develop asbestos diseases.
Exposure on the Job
The occupations with the most risk for asbestos-related diseases work with it directly or are exposed to it in their environment. Workers have often been exposed to asbestos for years. Some high-risk occupations include:
- Asbestos mining
- Automobile repair
- Chemical plants
- Construction, especially working with insulation or drywall
- Manufacturing involving asbestos products
- Power plants
From the 1930s through the 1970s, asbestos was frequently used in military vehicles, aircraft and ships. People who served in the Navy, worked in Naval shipyards or worked on military vehicles and aircraft during this time are most at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases. Today’s workers and military service members are less likely to be exposed thanks to declining use of asbestos and better protections.
Environmental exposure occurs due to naturally occurring asbestos deposits, which exist all around the country, including in northern California, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. If they’re mined or disturbed, including by natural disasters like earthquakes or tornadoes, the surrounding residents can be put at risk.
You can get an asbestos disease without ever working with or living around the substance. It’s called secondary exposure, and it most often happens when someone who works with asbestos brings the fibers home with them. Thanks to strict regulations for occupations that work with asbestos, secondary exposure has also declined.
Major Types of Asbestos-Related Diseases
Over decades, millions of workers have been exposed to asbestos. One study found that asbestos causes 255,000 deaths globally per year, and 233,000 of those are work-related. While exposure has declined, asbestos complications are expected to continue, as it takes decades for its effects to show. Here are the most common asbestos-related diseases.
There are several types of mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the thin membranes that line the lungs, heart, abdomen and testes. It’s rare, but very aggressive. The average life expectancy is just 12 to 21 months. If you’ve been exposed to asbestos, it’s important to monitor for symptoms to increase your chances of an early mesothelioma diagnosis.
Lung cancer develops inside the lungs, rather than in the lining. It’s one of the most common types of cancer in America, and while it isn’t usually caused by asbestos exposure, it can be. Asbestos-related lung cancer is responsible for thousands of deaths per year.
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that’s caused when asbestos fibers cause scarring and inflammation in the lungs. It isn’t a cancer, but it is an incurable, progressive disease that contributes to hundreds of deaths per year. The median life expectancy is 10 years, and those with asbestosis are also more likely to develop asbestos-related cancers.
Other Asbestos-Related Diseases
While the above diseases are the most serious, asbestos exposure contributes to or directly causes many others, including:
- Atelectasis: Collapse of the pleural lining in the lungs
- Diffuse pleural thickening: Extensive scarring in the lungs
- Ovarian and laryngeal cancer
- Pleural effusion: Fluid buildup in the lungs
- Pleural plaques: Thickened lining in the lungs
- Pleurisy: Severe inflammation of lining in the lungs
Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment
It takes a long time for asbestos exposure to develop into disease: Anywhere from 10 to 40 or more years can pass before you experience symptoms. These can include:
- Chest pain or tightness
- Coughing up blood
- Difficulty swallowing
- Face or neck swelling
- Persistent cough that gets worse
- Shortness of breath
- Weight loss
If you’ve been exposed to asbestos, you should monitor for these symptoms so you can see a doctor as soon as possible. Diagnosing asbestos diseases can involve:
- Bronchoscopy (looking at your lungs with a tiny camera)
- Chest x-rays
- CT scan
- Lung biopsy (testing lung tissue removed by surgery)
- Physical examination
- Tests of your lung function
Once asbestos-related disease is confirmed, the treatment will depend on your specific diagnosis, how far the disease has progressed and other factors. Treatment for mesothelioma and other cancers commonly includes chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, while patients receive oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation for asbestosis.
Prevention of Asbestos-Related Diseases
We know more about asbestos diseases now than ever before, and we’re able to prevent or limit exposure in many cases.
More than 60 countries have banned the use of asbestos entirely, but the United States has not, although lawmakers have tried. They reintroduced a bill in March 2023 that would amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to ban the import and use of all six types of asbestos fibers.
On-the-Job Safety Measures
While asbestos isn’t banned, the U.S. has put protections in place for workers. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workplaces with asbestos must:
- Adhere to a maximum airborne concentration of asbestos.
- Mark off and regulate access to areas with high concentrations.
- Provide respirators, coveralls, gloves, head coverings, face shields, goggles and other equipment in certain cases.
- Follow rules regarding ventilation and handling of asbestos to minimize airborne fibers.
- Provide designated change rooms and clean and replace asbestos clothing.
- Require some workers to shower at the end of a shift.
- Provide regular employee training.
- Follow rules regarding cleaning the premises.
Safety at Home
Some older homes used asbestos in construction, especially in vinyl flooring, insulation, drywall, popcorn ceilings and paint. While it’s fine if these materials aren’t disturbed, homeowners should use caution when making repairs or renovating. Have a professional perform an asbestos inspection and send samples for testing, and if asbestos is found, let an experienced contractor take care of it.
Legal Options for Patients and Families
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos disease, you may be entitled to compensation from the party who was responsible for your exposure. You may also be able to receive a payout from asbestos trust funds, which hold billions of dollars for victims. While the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit varies depending on state, you should typically file within two years from your date of diagnosis or from the date of the death of your loved one.
ELSM Law focuses exclusively on asbestos-related lawsuits, with more than 40 years of experience seeking justice for mesothelioma patients. We can help you navigate the complexities of the legal process and get the compensation you deserve.
FAQs About Asbestos-Related Diseases
What Are the Major Types of Asbestos-Related Diseases?
The major asbestos-related diseases are mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. These diseases tend to be the most serious, and often result in death. But asbestos causes many other diseases, including other types of cancers and issues with scarring, inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs.
Are Asbestos-Related Diseases Preventable?
Asbestos diseases can only be prevented by limiting or avoiding exposure to asbestos. The use of asbestos in various materials and products has decreased, which helps to prevent exposure. In addition, workplaces with asbestos must follow strict guidelines. However, lapses in safety procedures can still result in negligent asbestos exposure and deadly diseases.
Who Is Most at Risk of Developing an Asbestos-Related Disease?
Workers in certain industries, including shipbuilding, asbestos mining and manufacturing, construction and demolition, are at the highest risk of developing these diseases. Military veterans and Naval yard workers, especially those who served in the 1930s to 1970s, also have a high risk. Immediate family members of these groups also have increased risk.
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2. Lin, R-T, Chien, L-C et al. Lancet Planet Health. August 2019; 3: 341–48. doi:10.1016/S2542-5196(19)30109-3
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