Many Americans who worked before asbestos regulations in the 1980s later developed asbestosis, a chronic lung disease caused by scarred tissue and reduced lung function.
What Is Asbestosis?
Generally, occupational lung diseases caused by asbestos take 10 to 40 years to develop in the body. Among the asbestos-related chronic diseases, asbestosis (a disease characterized by asbestos-caused scarring in the lung tissue) typically occurs only after heavy exposure to the toxic fibers.
For instance, those who worked in asbestos mining, textiles, and insulation often inhaled airborne asbestos dust over years, or even decades, of employment. Retired shipyard workers are also at risk of asbestosis due to extreme levels of asbestos exposure over short periods of time in enclosed spaces.
Asbestosis, a type of pulmonary fibrosis, is also referred to as interstitial lung disease and interstitial pneumonitis.
Common Risk Factors for Asbestosis
Today, the majority of people diagnosed with asbestosis worked in high-risk industries prior to the passage of federal asbestos regulations in the 1980s. Leading up to the barrage of lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers in 1982, companies that made or used asbestos products largely failed to notify employees of the danger. As a result, tens of thousands of retired workers and senior citizens were diagnosed with occupational lung diseases in the following decades.
Examples of high-risk industries and trades include:
- Asbestos mining and milling, and manufacturing
- Aviation and auto mechanics
- Boiler operators
- Longshore and harbor workers
- Refinery plants
Secondhand exposure to asbestos is a risk for family members of workers who carry asbestos dust home on their skin and clothes.
If you suspect you may be at risk for asbestosis, talk to a doctor about your work history and any signs of respiratory problems (such as a persistent cough). Treating asbestosis can help with preventing lung cancer, as sometimes asbestosis can worsen when not taken care of.
Causes and Symptoms
The primary cause of asbestosis in the U.S. is occupational exposure to asbestos dust. Long periods of consistent exposure as well as short intervals of high levels of exposure can leave asbestos fibers lodged within the tiny air sacs in the lungs (known as alveoli).
The alveoli are responsible for the amount of oxygen circulating in the bloodstream. Asbestos-induced scarring impairs the function of the alveoli and causes lung tissues to stiffen over time. The stiffer the lungs become, the more difficult it becomes to breathe.
Smoking cigarettes further impairs the normal function of the lungs, leading to increasing amounts of toxic fibers stuck in lung cells and other lung cancer complications. Consequently, first- and secondhand smoke worsen the prognosis and symptoms of asbestosis and causes the disease to progress more quickly.
Due to the long latency period between exposure to airborne asbestos and the early signs of lung damage, many people don’t seek medical attention until the damage has already progressed. Symptoms of asbestos mimic those of other chronic pulmonary obstructive diseases and can range in severity from mild to fatal. Talk to your doctor about additional steps you can take to try and prevent lung cancer.
Symptoms of asbestosis include:
- Chest pain
- Clubbing of fingertips or toes
- Consistent, dry cough
- Dry, crackling sound upon inhale
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Shortness of breath
Diagnosis and Treatment
Because the symptoms of asbestosis are common among respiratory disorders, doctors typically need to conduct several tests to make an accurate diagnosis. First, doctors perform a physical examination using a stethoscope to listen to the lungs. They’ll also ask questions about your work history and potential sources of hazardous exposure.
Next, to locate any honeycomb-like white masses in the lungs, a doctor may order a chest X-ray or computerized tomography (CT) scan. Pulmonary function tests may also be used to measure the breathing capacity of the lungs – low function test results generally indicate the presence of lung damage.
Sometimes, a doctor orders a diagnostic procedure to identify and analyze cells in the affected area for abnormalities or malignancy. Bronchoscopy and thoracentesis are surgical procedures often used to differentiate asbestosis from other asbestos-related diseases, like pleural mesothelioma.
Currently, there is no treatment available to cure asbestosis – once lodged in the lungs, asbestos fibers are not removable. But there are steps a patient can take to improve their prognosis. Treatment of asbestosis aims to reduce painful symptoms and prevent complications. Depending on the progression of lung damage, managing asbestosis symptoms may include:
- Inhalers to ease breathing
- Lung transplant
- Palliative medication
- Pulmonary rehabilitation therapy
- Supplemental oxygen therapy
Clinical trials for asbestosis may provide new treatments or methods of managing symptoms and complications. Visit the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Trials page to find open, ongoing asbestosis clinical trials.
Complications of Asbestosis
Complications stemming from asbestosis are commonly caused by the reduced elasticity of lung tissue. Lung cancers, for instance, may form in the scarred tissue cells. Patients diagnosed with asbestosis are also at greater risk of developing other respiratory diseases such as:
- Mesotheliomas of the pleura, pericardium, peritoneum, and testicles
- Pleural disease (a thickening of the lining of the lungs)
- Pleural effusion (a type of pleurisy)
- Pleural plaques (hardening around lungs and diaphragm)