Signs of Asbestos Exposure

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The most common signs of asbestos exposure include shortness of breath, cough and chest pain. Pleural plaques are a sign that a person had enough exposure to be at risk of other diseases. They may develop prior to mesothelioma or lung cancer.

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The first signs of asbestos exposure are the symptoms of related diseases. There are no signs of asbestos exposure that a person could identify before a disease develops.

Signs of asbestos exposure usually involve the lungs. That’s because asbestos primarily causes lung diseases. Asbestos also causes diseases in other parts of the body. The signs of those diseases primarily affect the throat, stomach and colon.

In some instances, a routine X-ray or CT scan may identify pleural plaques. These signal that enough exposure happened to cause other asbestos-related diseases. But pleural plaques aren’t a sign that any person can watch out for because they rarely cause symptoms. Plaques begin to develop 10 to 30 years after exposure.

Signs of Asbestos Exposure Affecting the Lungs

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry cough or wheezing
  • Crackling sound when breathing
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Respiratory complications
  • Pleural effusion (accumulation of fluid in the space surrounding a lung)
  • Pleural plaques
  • Pleural thickening
  • Asbestosis

Signs of Asbestos Exposure Affecting Other Parts of the Body

  • Abdominal swelling and distention
  • Abdominal or pelvic pain
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Hernia
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Clubbed fingers

Diseases Caused by Asbestos Exposure

Exposure to asbestos causes cancerous and noncancerous diseases. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has confirmed that several cancers are directly caused by asbestos exposure.

Cancers Caused by Asbestos Exposure

Noncancerous Diseases and Conditions Caused by Asbestos Exposure

  • Asbestosis
  • Pleural plaques
  • Pleural thickening
  • Benign pleural effusion
  • Pleuritis
  • Atelectasis

The IARC also found an increased risk of other cancers but haven’t proven a direct causal relationship. These include stomach cancer, pharyngeal cancer and colorectal cancer.

Occupational exposure is the No. 1 cause of asbestos-related disease. Secondary exposure can cause all of these conditions, too.

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The symptoms of mesothelioma resemble many common respiratory conditions and often gets misdiagnosed. A second opinion by a specialist could result in a much better prognosis.

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Screening for Asbestos-Related Diseases

Asbestos-related diseases rarely produce noticeable symptoms or measurable abnormalities in early stages of development. Screening for these conditions before symptoms arise is difficult and often ineffective.

However, if you have a history of heavy asbestos exposure, screening for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases could save your life. There’s no single screening that can conclusively detect mesothelioma, but a combination of tests may help doctors find potential problems before they start to cause symptoms.

Tell your doctor if you have a history of asbestos exposure and ask for recommended screenings.

Screening Procedures for Asbestos-Related Diseases

  • Chest X-ray
  • Low-dose CT scan
  • Spirometry
  • Bronchoscopy
  • Bronchoalveolar lavage
  • Pulmonary function tests

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends a chest X-ray and pulmonary function tests every three to five years for patients with noncancerous asbestos disease. These tests might catch cancerous changes in the chest, but are not entirely reliable.

Researchers are developing blood tests for mesothelioma. Others are developing tests for biomarkers of asbestos exposure. These tests are not accurate enough yet to detect signs of asbestos exposure or mesothelioma.

Transvaginal ultrasound and a blood test for the CA-125 protein may be used as screening tools for ovarian cancer.

Risk of Developing Asbestos-Related Diseases

Approximately 20 percent of people who work with asbestos develop a related disease.

  • 6 to 10 percent develop mesothelioma
  • 20 to 25 percent develop lung cancer
  • 50 percent develop asbestosis

Many factors are involved in the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. How long a person was exposed plays a major role. So does the concentration of asbestos fibers they inhaled.

Most people who get sick worked heavily with asbestos for most of their career.

All types of asbestos cause these diseases. Some fibers appear to be more carcinogenic such as crocidolite (blue asbestos).

Genetics and lifestyle choices, such as smoking cigarettes or using talcum powder, are contributing risk factors for some of these conditions.

The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure significantly increases the risk of lung cancer but not mesothelioma. Smoking can worsen the progression of asbestosis.

Sometimes, noncancerous conditions develop before asbestos cancers. They are not a reliable sign that cancer will develop, but they do indicate a high level of exposure that is associated with asbestos cancers.

Pleural Plaques Signal Significant Exposure

Pleural plaques are the most common sign of significant asbestos exposure. They may develop before or alongside other asbestos-related diseases. Not everyone with plaques will develop another related disease.

A 2013 French study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute studied pleural plaques and the risk of mesothelioma. It tracked more than 5,000 asbestos workers and reported the following observations:

  • Pleural plaques were found in 20.4 percent of workers.
  • About 7.4 percent of workers with one to nine years of asbestos exposure developed pleural plaques.
  • More than 50 percent of workers with 40 or more years of experience developed plaques.
  • Workers with pleural plaques were approximately six to nine times more likely to later develop mesothelioma.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a noncancerous progressive lung disease that leads to severe lung dysfunction. It does not turn into cancer. An asbestosis diagnosis indicates a person had enough exposure to also be at risk of asbestos-related cancers, particularly lung cancer.

A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine studied asbestosis and lung cancer among asbestos insulators. It found people with asbestosis were 7.4 times more likely to develop lung cancer.

It is less common for asbestosis patients to develop mesothelioma, but it is possible. A 2017 study published in the journal Safety and Health at Work found no clear trends between the incidence of asbestosis and mesothelioma.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports that many asbestosis patients die of other causes. About 9 percent die of mesothelioma and 38 percent die of lung cancer.

Pleural Thickening

Pleural thickening is a noncancerous condition that is associated with heavy asbestos exposure. It does not run the risk of turning cancerous, but it may develop before some cases of mesothelioma.

Interestingly, a 1988 study of Australian crocidolite miners found an increased risk of peritoneal mesothelioma — not pleural mesothelioma — among those with pleural thickening.

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Common Questions About Asbestos Exposure

How Much Asbestos Exposure Is Safe?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), no level of asbestos exposure is safe. Excess rates of cancers are found at all asbestos fiber concentrations. This means that there is no evidence for a safe level of asbestos exposure.

Can a One-Time Exposure to Asbestos be Harmful?

It is possible to get sick from minimal exposure to asbestos, but it is rare. There is a dose-response relationship between asbestos and the diseases it causes. That means the risk of getting sick increases as exposure increases.

The duration of exposure and the concentration of fibers impact risk. A one-time exposure at a high concentration of fibers has the potential to cause health effects. Short-term exposure to asbestos dust is less likely to cause health effects than long-term exposure.

What to Do If You’ve Been Exposed to Asbestos?

There are proactive steps you can take if you think you were exposed to asbestos.

  • Tell all your doctors about your exposure
  • Get cancer screenings recommended by your doctor
  • Monitor your health for symptoms of asbestos-related diseases
  • Get symptoms checked quickly and explain your asbestos exposure history
  • Don’t smoke cigarettes, and start a cessation program if you do
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising often and getting enough sleep
  • Get flu and pneumonia vaccines

Is There a Test for Asbestos Exposure?

There is no single test to confirm whether a person was exposed to asbestos. A variety of screenings and diagnostic tests for asbestos-related diseases effectively serve as tests for asbestos exposure. When a test reveals an asbestos-related disease, doctors assume the patient was exposed to asbestos.

Pathologists can measure how many asbestos fibers are located in samples of lung tissue. But this kind of testing is not an accurate representation of exposure, nor can it predict who will get sick. Sometimes, it plays a role in asbestos lawsuits to prove a patient was exposed to a certain kind of asbestos.

How Do I Check to See If I Have Been Exposed to Asbestos?

Because there are no tests to measure asbestos exposure, you could review your work history for occupational asbestos exposure. Many blue-collar jobs involve working with asbestos products. Some people are exposed in schools and other public buildings.

If you suspect that a certain product exposed you to asbestos, you could research the product, or have it tested for asbestos by an accredited laboratory.

If you think you lived or worked in a place with asbestos contamination, you could research the location and its construction. If the location is still standing, you may inquire about asbestos testing.

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Writer

Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at Asbestos.com for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at Asbestos.com
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Last Modified September 10, 2019

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