Asbestos is a natural mineral widely used in industries like construction, shipbuilding, and manufacturing because of its heat resistance, tensile strength, and insulating properties. After about 100 years of industrial use, asbestos was proven toxic in the 20th century. In its original state asbestos is generally harmless, but when disturbed and brought into contact with other materials, asbestos fibers released into the air can be inhaled or swallowed causing both malignant and benign mesothelioma.
Malignant Diseases Related to Asbestos Exposure
Mesothelioma is the most common case of cancer related to asbestos exposure. It is, however, a rare disease, registering about 3,000 new cases annually in the U.S. This type of cancer affects the mesothelium, which is a thin protective membrane that forms the lining of some organs. It can take 20 to 50 years between asbestos exposure and the onset of mesothelioma. The disease can affect the lining of the lungs, abdomen, heart, or testicles — known as pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma and testicular mesothelioma, respectively. Each form of the disease causes different types of symptoms, but pain and shortness of breath are among the most common regardless the diagnosis.
Despite the fact that mesothelioma is the most common cancer related to asbestos exposure, it can also cause other types of cancer, such as lung cancer. Asbestos is responsible for a small percentage of all cases of lung cancer, and there are numerous other risk factors, including smoking. Regardless the cause, symptoms include coughing, wheezing, breathlessness and chest pain. Lung cancer is one of the deadliest malignant diseases, causing about 3,200 deaths in the U.S. every year. It is particularly common among asbestos-exposed smokers.
The connection between asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer was scientifically established in 2009. Researchers revealed that asbestos fibers can travel through the bloodstream, lymphatic system, or reproductive tract to the ovaries in women who were exposed to asbestos. Women exposed to asbestos are 77 percent more likely to develop ovarian cancer than other women, according to the causal relationship demonstrated by medical literature.
Other Related Cancers
Laryngeal cancer is less common than the other types of cancer, but there is still a relation between asbestos exposure and the disease, particularly in people with other risk factors like smoking or drinking alcohol. Laryngeal cancer is diagnosed in about 13,500 people every year in the U.S., and 60 percent of them live longer than five years. Other cancers, which have increased risk due to asbestos, include esophageal cancer, gallbladder cancer, kidney cancer, and throat cancer. Though asbestos is not the only cause of those cancers, exposure to asbestos can increase the probability of developing them.
Benign Diseases Related to Asbestos Exposure
Asbestosis is a benign lung condition that causes severe scarring and inflammation on the tissue of the organ. Due to asbestos, the lungs are unable to properly expand and relax, which causes symptoms like shortness of breath and chest tightness. This severe form of interstitial lung disease caused 1,400 deaths in the U.S. between 2000 and 2007.
Pleural effusions occur when there is fluid buildup between the pleural layers. It can happen independently or as a symptom of advanced mesothelioma. Though people may live with it for years, pain and irregular breathing may become severe as the disease progresses. There are treatments to address pleural effusions, but a talc pleurodesis is the only way to assure that recurrence won’t occur. About 1.5 million cases of pleural effusion are diagnosed annually in the U.S. due to numerous causes.
Pleural plaques are particularly common following asbestos exposure. They are characterized by calcified buildups on the pleura. This condition is not considered severe or life-threatening, but when it becomes extremely thick patients may experience pain while breathing. The incidence of pleural plaques is one to 6.8 percent among men older than age 30 in Western nations. However, in populations exposed to asbestos the incidence increases to five to about 50 percent, according to other factors such as duration or concentration of the exposure to asbestos.
Pleuritis is an excessive inflammation of the pleura caused by asbestos fibers. The disease is also known as pleurisy or pleuritic chest pain and it causes severe pain in the chest and shoulder due to inflamed surfaces roughly rubbing against each other. It is often accompanied by pleural effusions and the pain tends to be worse while breathing, coughing, or moving. In 10 percent of pleuritis cases, patients end up developing mesothelioma. In areas less affected by asbestos, the percentage decreases to 3.3.
Diffuse Pleural Thickening
Diffuse pleural thickening is condition that causes lesions on the pleura, making it more thick. It occurs in five to 13.5 percent of the people exposed to asbestos. It can be diagnosed only a year after exposure, but it is more commonly diagnosed 15 to 30 years after exposure. Official diagnosis is confirmed when there is a thickening of one-quarter of the pleura and the thickening causes decreased lung function. Diffuse pleural thickening is usually not life-threatening, but it can be fatal in cases when the pleura is so thick that the airflow become compromised.
Atelectasis, asbestos pseudotumor or Blesovsky Syndrome, is a rare condition related to asbestos exposure and it can occur simultaneously with pleural thickening. It consists of the formation of inflammation and scar tissue on the pleural, which makes the lining membrane fold into the lung. Though it is a benign disease, it appears malignant and physicians may require a biopsy to properly diagnose it. About 65 to 70 percent of workers exposed to asbestos are diagnosed with rounded atelectasis, which is the most common form of the disease and an abnormal form of lung collapse.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is not directly related to asbestos exposure, but it can increase the risk of developing it. Similarly, patients who have COPD have weaker lungs, which makes them more susceptible to developing other conditions when exposed to asbestos.