Written by Karen Selby, RN | Medically Reviewed By Dr. Chelsea Alvarado | Edited By Walter Pacheco | Last Update: June 28, 2024

Key Facts About Asbestosis
  • Asbestosis causes progressive lung scarring such as pulmonary fibrosis and interstitial lung disease.
  • Long-term exposure to asbestos increases the risk of asbestosis.
  • No cure currently exists for asbestosis, but treatment can slow progression and improve symptoms.

What Causes Asbestosis?

Asbestosis results from breathing in asbestos fibers over a prolonged period. These microscopic airborne fibers become lodged deep within the lungs, leading to fibrosis, or scarring, that prevents the lungs from working properly. Asbestosis is a progressive disease, meaning that it worsens over time.

Various industries used asbestos extensively through the 1970s. Some new products still contain asbestos, including auto parts and roofing materials. Many older products, ranging from household items to building insulation, contain asbestos.

How asbestos causes asbestosis
Inhaled asbestos fibers cause inflammation and scarring that leads to asbestosis.

Asbestosis has a long latency period. It can take several years or decades for asbestosis symptoms to develop after exposure. The risk of developing asbestosis increases with exposure levels, meaning that long-term exposure or exposure to high levels of asbestos significantly increases your risk of asbestosis. Smoking increases the risk of asbestosis, speeds onset, worsens symptoms and increases the death rate.

The body’s immune system helps remove asbestos fibers from the body. However, it cannot remove them all, especially in heavily exposed workers. Asbestos fibers cause inflammation and also prevent the immune system from working properly. This can lead to scar tissue called pulmonary fibrosis forming in and around the lungs. Pulmonary fibrosis makes the lungs stiff and less able to fill with air and provide oxygen to the body.

Latency Period of Asbestosis

Benign asbestosis has a shorter latency period compared to other pulmonary complications. Initial, nonsymptomatic fibrosis may progress into a more advanced condition affecting lung function. Because symptoms often develop years or decades after exposure, a comprehensive health and occupational history is necessary to establish exposure and causation. 

Lifestyle choices can play a role in disease progression. For example, smoking affects the likelihood of developing asbestos-related illnesses. Some studies suggest that it also impacts the latency period of asbestosis.

One 2022 study observed a direct link between smoking and a shorter latency period of asbestos-related lung diseases when compared to nonsmokers. There was no correlation between the number of cigarettes per day and latency, meaning any amount of smoking can shorten the time it takes for asbestosis to develop. 

Key Facts About Asbestos
  • Asbestos causes an estimated 255,000 deaths annually around the world.
  • Asbestosis symptoms typically take 20-30 years to develop.
  • In the U.S., asbestos-related diseases cause more than 39,000 deaths each year.
  • The risk of asbestos-related disease increases with the amount of asbestos exposure.
  • Smoking can reduce the amount of time it takes for asbestosis to develop.

Lung damage due to asbestosis occurs years before symptoms develop, and doctors can detect it long before symptoms arise. Clinical testing, including diagnostic imaging scans, can detect physical signs of disease before symptoms appear. Therefore, anyone with a history of exposure to asbestos who begins to occasionally feel out of breath should schedule an examination with a doctor experienced in detecting asbestos-related illnesses.

Survivor Story
Survivor Story
Jerry Cochran Asbestosis Survivor

Navy Veteran With Asbestosis Has a Passion for Justice

Navy veteran Jerry Cochran developed asbestosis from his exposure to asbestos serving in the Navy. Cochran is on oxygen, has shortness of breath, chest pain, trouble getting around. “I would like to see justice served. We served our country, we went in with the motivation that we’re going in to support and fight for our country,” Cochran said. “They knew the dangers, they knew the downfalls, but yet they put us out there in the midst of it without any knowledge or protection.”

Read Jerry’s Story

Where Does Asbestos Exposure Occur?

Asbestos is in many everyday products, including automotive parts, cement, drywall and many other building materials. Therefore, asbestos exposure can happen almost anywhere. Although it is no longer mined in the U.S. or used in residential construction, the substance still exists in certain industrial building materials and in residential construction dating prior to 1980. However, most experts do not consider occasional exposure sufficient to cause asbestosis. 

An individual must have regular, prolonged exposure to asbestos to develop pulmonary fibrosis. As a result, occupational exposure is among the top causes of asbestosis. Working in occupations such as construction, mining, shipbuilding and U.S. Navy service prior to 1970 are among the primary causes of asbestosis in the United States. Additionally, a 2021 study found higher-than-expected rates of asbestos-related disease among auto mechanics. 

Asbestos Exposure Risks
  • Living near an asbestos mine or processing facility
  • Renovating properties built before 1980
  • Insulation installation
  • Manufacturing asbestos products
  • Shipbuilding
  • Smoking
  • Working in asbestos mining and milling

Several industries use asbestos in regular operations. These include many construction trades and the manufacturing of products that contain asbestos. Additionally, disrupting products that contain asbestos, such as removing asbestos tiles, creates potentially harmful dust. These all create excessive exposure to the mineral and are possible causes of asbestosis. 

Prolonged environmental exposure to asbestos is also harmful. Family members of exposed workers and people living near asbestos mines, processing plants or manufacturing facilities have higher rates of asbestos-related illnesses, including asbestosis. This is the result of secondhand exposure from clothing and equipment brought into homes.

Asbestosis is actually a type of pulmonary fibrosis, which means it’s characterized by a large amount of scarring within the lungs. It’s treated symptomatically with options that reduce the amount of symptoms such as breathing treatments, oxygen or pain management.

Sean Marchese

Asbestos-Related Illnesses

In addition to asbestosis, there is a clear link between asbestos exposure and other lung diseases and several types of cancer. Asbestos can cause scarring in the pleura, the thin membrane that surrounds the lungs. This can lead to pleural thickening and pleural effusions (fluid buildup). Asbestos is also linked to cancer in the lungs and other parts of the body.

Asbestos causes malignant mesothelioma, which can occur in the lungs or the abdominal cavity. Asbestos is also linked to lung cancer, as well as cancer of the larynx (voice box) and ovaries.

Asbestos-Related Diseases
  • Asbestosis: Scarring in the lungs that makes the lungs stiff and less able to provide the body with oxygen.
  • Atelectasis: The partial or complete collapse of a lung, atelectasis is a common coexisting condition of other forms of lung disease.
  • Hyaline Pleural Plaques: These grey-white areas of cartilage-like material appear as tissue in the lung lining. They are benign and often present no symptoms or adverse health effects.
  • Laryngeal Cancer: Signs of this cancer of the larynx (voice box) include sore throat and ear pain. It can affect the vocal cords and breathing.
  • Lung Cancer: Asbestos exposure contributes to increased rates of lung cancer. Diagnosis typically occurs many years after exposure.
  • Malignant Mesothelioma: Asbestos exposure is the most common cause of mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer. Treatment options include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation and surgery. Even with treatment, the average life expectancy after a mesothelioma diagnosis is between 12 and 21 months.
  • Ovarian Cancer: Current research links elevated rates of ovarian cancer to occupational exposure to asbestos.
  • Pleural Effusion: Repeated exposure to asbestos may contribute to pleural effusion, or fluid between the layers of the lungs.

There is no cure for asbestosis, but treatments exist to help slow disease progression and relieve symptoms. An asbestosis diagnosis increases the risk of developing mesothelioma, so regular cancer screenings should accompany any treatments. 

Routine lung and cancer screenings can establish an early diagnosis of asbestosis or other asbestos-related diseases. This is critical because early treatment of asbestos-related illnesses may help lessen disease severity and improve outcomes.

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