Treatment & Doctors

5 Things to Do if You Have Been Exposed to Asbestos

Written By:
Sep 12, 2022
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Written By: Sean Marchese, MS, RN,
September 12, 2022

Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma and asbestosis, devastating conditions that require aggressive treatments. 

If you become exposed to asbestos, talking with your doctor and planning the next steps is crucial. 

“If you have a history of asbestos exposure, I recommend discussing further with your primary care physician,” radiation oncologist Dr. Rupesh Kotecha told The Mesothelioma Center. “They will review your medical history, ask about potential symptoms, order any necessary tests and refer you to a specialist if needed.”

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure, and symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases often take 20 to 60 years to appear. However, if you know you’ve been exposed to asbestos or have a history of contact with asbestos-containing materials, you can take these five steps to preserve your health. 

Tell Your Doctor About Asbestos Exposure Early

Informing your primary care physician or health care team about your asbestos exposure is a straightforward yet crucial step in preventing disease. 

Asbestos and mesothelioma researcher Arti Shukla, Ph.D., told The Mesothelioma Center what she thought someone’s top priority should be after asbestos exposure. 

“My advice to someone who comes to know their history of asbestos exposure or realization of any asbestos exposure is to go and see the doctor first,” said Shukla. “In my opinion, health comes first. Everything else is secondary.” 

Whether you worked with asbestos-containing materials, were exposed at a construction or industrial site or were close to someone who had asbestos on them, telling your doctor is vital. 

“You should notify your primary care provider and have them document the social history in the chart for every provider to see. They need to specifically document what kind of asbestos exposure and what duration, for example,” thoracic surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Velotta told The Mesothelioma Center. “The more detailed the description a patient can give their PCP, the better.”

Follow Up with Recommended Screening Tests

When you let your doctor know about your history with asbestos it becomes part of your medical history and permanent record. From that point forward, all of your doctors will know when to start screening for asbestos-related diseases and how frequently to follow up.

Mesothelioma specialists are experts in testing for and treating asbestos-related illnesses. 

“If you have been exposed to asbestos, speak to your doctor about getting a screening CT scan for lung cancer and mesothelioma, or see a doctor specializing in diseases from asbestos,” said thoracic surgeon Dr. Raja Flores.  

Early treatment of asbestos-related illnesses is crucial to survival. With surgery, patients with stage 1 mesothelioma have a life expectancy of 21 months compared to those with stage 4, the most advanced form, with a life expectancy of 12 months. 

“There is no screening test [specifically] for mesothelioma,” said Velotta.

However, mesothelioma specialists know the risk factors and warning signs of asbestos-related diseases. 

“Tell your PCP if you have a family history of lung or other cancers, as that can also be a risk factor,” he said. 

Having knowledge of your asbestos exposure history will ensure your health care providers know what to look for on each of your visits. They’ll be more aware of potential respiratory issues and be able to watch for red flags that could point to a higher risk of developing mesothelioma. 

For example, smoking reduces your body’s ability to respond to asbestos. People with a history of asbestos exposure who smoke are 28 times more likely to die from lung cancer than the average person. 

Low-dose CT scans are the recommended screening test for smokers between ages 55 and 80. With a history of asbestos exposure or a family history of lung cancer, your doctor may prescribe regular screening tests such as chest X-rays, bronchoscopies or pulmonary function tests. 

Watch for Early Mesothelioma Symptoms

According to Velotta, the time it takes to develop symptoms of asbestos-related disease is related to the amount and length of asbestos exposure. 

“It is still rare to get mesothelioma from even long-term asbestos exposure, but with that being said, you have an increased risk of developing a malignancy or lung condition when exposed for decades, and the more frequent, the more risk,” Velotta said.

“If someone has been exposed to asbestos, the main thing to do is think about how long and how often they were exposed,” he added. “Longer exposure and more repetitive exposure, as well as direct contact or higher doses of asbestos, the higher your risk of having a malignancy due to asbestos.” 

Although it takes many years for asbestos-related diseases to form, it’s essential to know the earliest signs and watch for any developing symptoms. 

Common signs of pleural mesothelioma include:

  • Chest pain
  • Dry cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Muscle weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the face and arms
  • Unexplained weight loss

Asbestos-related lung cancer causes similar symptoms, but patients may also develop hoarseness, frequent respiratory infections and coughing up blood. 

Velotta said informing your doctor of symptoms is the fastest way to get testing for asbestos-related diseases. 

“If the patient is having any pulmonary or respiratory symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or feeling slight pain or heaviness on one side of the chest, they should notify their PCP immediately,” he said. 

“The first thing to get would be a chest X-ray and go from there,” he added. “The main thing you can do if you have significant asbestos exposure is to tell your PCP and then don’t wait down the line if you do have symptoms or weight loss, which is another concerning symptom.”

Many treatments, including chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, can reduce the severity of symptoms. An early diagnosis is the best way to ensure you have the most treatment options and the best chance of increasing mesothelioma life expectancy

Prevent Future Asbestos Exposure

Because asbestos disease risk increases with exposure, knowing the potential hazards of asbestos-containing products is a significant way to lower the chances of developing an illness. 

Asbestos was prevalent in many industrial and household materials throughout the 20th century due to its affordability and ability to withstand high heat. Many older products and buildings still contain asbestos.

Undisturbed or nonfriable asbestos materials present lower risks because the fibers are less likely to be airborne. However, friable asbestos breaks or crumbles quickly, and disturbing the material can release millions of asbestos fibers that are easy to inhale. 

Older asbestos-containing products include:
  • Automotive parts
  • Cement
  • Gaskets
  • Household appliances
  • Insulation
  • Talcum powder
  • Textiles
  • Tiles
  • Vinyl products

Knowing where asbestos might be hiding is essential to avoiding further exposure events and reducing the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. 

Raising Mesothelioma Awareness

Mesothelioma is a rare disease, and it is a devastating one. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of how asbestos causes mesothelioma and several other disorders, such as lung cancer and asbestosis. 

Awareness is essential because it brings attention to the resources needed to fight these terrible illnesses. Research requires funding and participation, and it’s the only way doctors and researchers can develop new treatments. 

Raising awareness gets the word out about asbestos-related diseases. It highlights the needs of the mesothelioma community compared to those with cancers that generally receive more notice, such as breast or brain cancer. 

Asbestos Awareness Week in early April is one event that provides opportunities for individuals and organizations to highlight the global health crisis of asbestos toxicity. 

Events such as Mesothelioma Awareness Day on Sept. 26 help raise awareness and educate the public about asbestos exposure and the need for an asbestos ban.

Supporters and mesothelioma warriors wear blue bracelets or ribbons on Mesothelioma Awareness Day and participate in community events. iWalk4Meso, Miles for Meso and Kayaking 4 Meso all help raise research and asbestos education funds. 

Each year, 100,000 people worldwide die from asbestos-related illnesses. Raising awareness and being a supportive member of the mesothelioma community can help prevent more lives from being lost to unnecessary and avoidable asbestos exposure. 

If you or someone you know has a history of asbestos exposure, showing your support could mean the world to other survivors and families. 

Medically Reviewed by Top Mesothelioma Doctors
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