Awareness & Research

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer: Prevention and Awareness

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Written By: Sean Marchese, MS, RN, Last modified: December 14, 2020

Aug. 1 is World Lung Cancer Day, and the American Lung Association is encouraging everyone to educate themselves on environmental risk factors and prevention through early screening.

Lung cancer can affect anyone, and it remains the most common and deadly cancer worldwide. The disease is responsible for approximately one in five deaths globally and accounts for over 2 million cases annually.

Taking steps to avoid exposure to dangerous substances and environmental toxins can substantially decrease the risk of developing lung cancer and other diseases such as mesothelioma.

Smoking causes an overwhelming 80% of lung cancer deaths, but it is essential to recognize other risk factors. Many people diagnosed with the disease never smoked in their lives. Exposure to toxins such as asbestos increases the risk of lung cancer in smokers and non-smokers.

At-Risk Workers Can Prevent Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Inhaling asbestos dust causes microscopic fibers to become trapped within the lung tissue. Over several years, asbestos in the lungs causes damage to DNA that results in mutations that produce lung cancer. More commonly, asbestos becomes lodged in the lining surrounding the lungs, causing pleural mesothelioma.

Similar to mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer usually develops around 15 to 35 years after initial exposure. Physicians diagnose most cases in workers who experienced occupational exposure after working with asbestos decades prior.

Lung cancer prevention starts with identifying if you are part of a population at risk for developing the disease. Many employers knowingly exposed their workers to asbestos for decades before regulation became widespread.

Workers in the mining, construction, shipbuilding and firefighting industries are most at risk due to the historical use of asbestos materials in structures and manufacturing. Veterans are also at high risk because of the military’s use of the substance in older bases and ships.

Adults over the age of 55 who are smokers or at risk of asbestos-related lung cancer can take significant preventative measures by undergoing screening.

New Type of Lung Cancer Screening Available

A new low-dose CT scan is now available, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the scan for older adults with a history of smoking. However, those with a history of possible asbestos exposure should also talk to their doctors about undergoing a low-dose CT.

If more Americans adopt preventative measures against lung cancer, early screening can significantly improve lung cancer survival rates. The American Lung Association estimates low-dose CT scans could save 25,000 lives every year if the 8 million high-risk Americans underwent early screening.

Discussing a potential history of asbestos exposure with your primary care physician is the first step in getting the recommended tests and an accurate diagnosis.

In addition to asbestos exposure, genetics and overall health play a role in the development of lung cancer. Identifying just one risk factor, such as occupational asbestos exposure, can prevent years of lung cancer treatment.

Patients with lung cancer typically experience shortness of breath, chest pain and general fatigue. Symptoms usually only arise once lung cancer has entered its later stages. At that time, lung cancer is more challenging to treat and options are limited.

The CDC recommends people with a history of asbestos exposure seek regular screening for asbestos-related lung cancer. However, there are other environmental sources of lung cancer that might not be common knowledge.

Lung Cancer Prevention Starts at Home

Asbestos-related lung cancer accounts for approximately 4% of all lung cancer deaths. Many Americans may not realize the risk of asbestos in homes. Houses and buildings built before the 1980s are likely to contain asbestos in the insulation, flooring, roofing or other construction materials.

When asbestos-containing materials are damaged, the fibers escape as microscopic particles that pollute the air. Owners of older homes should be aware of asbestos-containing materials used in their houses.

The second-most common cause of lung cancer is also present within the home. Radon is a colorless and odorless gas that is radioactive. It is found in homes and commercial buildings across the U.S. The gas forms naturally in the ground after the radioactive decay of soil and rock.

Radioactive radon particles can become lodged in the lungs and damage cellular tissue, eventually causing cancer. Radon is responsible for approximately 20,000 lung cancer deaths annually, and smokers exposed to radon have a higher risk of developing lung cancer.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one in 15 homes in America has elevated levels of radon gas. Testing for the gas is easily accessible through self-testing kits and recommended for homes with or without basements. Addressing elevated levels of radon can prevent lung cancer for everyone in the household.

Other lesser-known environmental causes of lung cancer include outdoor air pollution, such as engine exhaust, and silica dust resulting from the breakdown of construction materials.

While the dangers of asbestos and smoking are well known, many other factors could put you at a higher risk for lung cancer.

For World Lung Cancer Day, take time to educate yourself and others on simple measures you can take to prevent this deadly illness. Talk to your physician about your family’s history of cancer, and test your home for asbestos or radon. It’s never too early to start preventative measures that could one day save your life.