Studies have linked more than a dozen different diseases to asbestos exposure. Many of these diseases, such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, have a confirmed relationship with the toxic mineral. Others, such as COPD and kidney cancer, are not directly caused by asbestos, but researchers suspect that exposure can increase a person’s risk for developing them.
Asbestos-related diseases can range from mild and benign to malignant and life-threatening. Malignant diseases tend to be less common than benign illnesses, yet some of the benign conditions are just as serious as cancer. Asbestosis — a benign illness — led to more deaths per year between 1999 and 2001 than asbestos-induced gastrointestinal cancer did during the same time frame.
Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will get one of these diseases. However, exposure does increase a person’s lifelong risk the developing one or more of these conditions. This elevated risk lasts for decades after exposure.
Asbestos is the single largest cause of occupational cancer in the United States. It can directly cause four distinct malignancies, and it may increase a person’s risk for several others. Although any amount of exposure can cause cancer, people who inhaled or ingested large amounts of asbestos for extended periods of time have the highest risk of developing these cancers.
With exposure responsible for nearly all cases, mesothelioma is the signature asbestos-related cancer. It is also one of the most deadly related diseases, causing between 2,000 and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States alone. On average, the prognosis is less than one year from the time of diagnosis.
The cancer is named after the mesothelium, the thin protective lining where the tumors develop. It can appear on the lining of the lungs, stomach, heart or testicles — known respectively as pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma and testicular mesothelioma. Each type of mesothelioma is associated with a unique set of symptoms, but chest or abdominal pain and shortness of breath affect most patients, regardless of their specific diagnosis.Learn More about Mesothelioma
Asbestos-related lung cancer is almost indistinguishable from lung cancer caused by another risk factor. The symptoms — coughing, wheezing, breathlessness and chest pain — are the same, regardless of the cause of the cancer.
Even though asbestos is only responsible for a small portion of all lung cancer diagnoses, lung cancer is still one of the most fatal related malignancies. It claims upwards of 3,200 lives each year in the United States.
Like mesothelioma, lung cancer is most common in people who were exposed to large quantities of asbestos for a prolonged period of time. Asbestos-exposed smokers also have an increased risk of developing small cell or non-small cell lung cancer.Learn More about Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer
Researchers confirmed the link between asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer in 2009. The fibers — which have repeatedly been found in the ovaries of asbestos-exposed women — may reach the organs via the bloodstream, lymph system or reproductive tract.
A meta-analysis of all medical literature on the relationship between asbestos and ovarian cancer confirmed in 2011 confirmed a causal relationship exits. They found 77 percent more cases of ovarian cancer among women who worked with asbestos compared to the general public.
Although laryngeal cancer is less common than other related cancers, there is a proven link between the fibers and the disease. Other risk factors, such as smoking or drinking, are more likely to cause the cancer. The risk increases with the length and intensity of a person’s exposure. More than 13,500 cases are diagnosed annually in the U.S. Around 60 percent of patients live longer than five years.
Other cancers that are loosely associated with asbestos exposure include esophageal cancer, gallbladder cancer, kidney cancer and throat cancer. Studies have reported various degrees of success linking these cancers to exposure. Asbestos may increase a person’s risk for these cancers, but it is not a proven risk factor.
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Benign asbestos-related diseases are slightly more prevalent than related malignancies. In one study of 231 asbestos-exposed workers, 99 developed at least one benign lung abnormality.
This elevated incidence rate may partially be related to the amount of exposure necessary for the conditions to develop. Although both benign and malignant diseases may develop after just one incidence of asbestos exposure, malignant conditions typically result from years of exposure. Benign diseases often require less exposure; one study revealed asbestos-related changes in full-time employees whose working environments had as few as 15 asbestos fibers per milliliter of air.
While cancers typically have a latency period of several decades, non-cancerous illnesses can arise within only a few years. One case study revealed the presence of asbestos-related pleural effusions less than one year after the patient’s exposure.
Asbestosis is a benign yet deadly lung disease that is characterized by severe scarring and inflammation of lung tissue. It prevents the lungs from expanding and relaxing normally, leading to symptoms such as shortness of breath and tightness in the chest.
Even though it is benign, this form of interstitial lung disease can be extremely serious. For seven of the eight years between 2000 and 2007, asbestosis was an underlying or contributing cause of death for more than 1,400 people in the United States.
Pleural effusions are fluid buildups between the pleural layers. They may develop independently, but they are often a symptom of late-stage mesothelioma. On their own, they are not immediately life-threatening, but over time they may cause severe pain or interfere with regular breathing. Even after treatment, they are likely to recur unless a talc pleurodesis is performed.
Numerous conditions aside from mesothelioma can cause pleural effusion. Approximately 1.5 million cases of pleural effusion are diagnosed each year in the U.S.
Pleural plaques arise fairly frequently after exposure. These calcified buildups on the pleura are not considered a severe health issue. If they become extremely thick, they may make breathing painful, but they are typically not a life-threatening condition.
In the general population, incidence in Western countries is 1 to 6.8 percent among men over 30 years old. In asbestos-exposed populations, the incidence of pleural plaques ranges from 5 to nearly 50 percent, depending upon factors like duration and concentration of asbestos exposure.
Asbestos fibers can cause excessive inflammation of the pleura, known as pleuritis, pleurisy or pleuritic chest pain. The inflamed surfaces become rough and rub against each other, causing sharp pain in the chest or shoulder. The pain is often worse when the patient is breathing, coughing or moving. Pleurisy may also be accompanied by pleural effusions.
In geographic areas with higher incidence of mesothelioma, approximately 10 percent of people diagnosed with pleuritis of unknown cause go on to develop mesothelioma. In areas of low mesothelioma incidence, the incidence is around 3.3 percent.
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Exposure can cause diffuse pleural thickening, in which lesions appear on the pleural lining and cause the area to thicken. Some standards require thickening in one quarter of the pleura in order to officially qualify as diffuse pleural thickening, while other standards only require thickening in only 8 centimeters of the pleura. This condition often decreases a patient’s lung function. In rare cases, it can be fatal if it becomes severe enough to prevent adequate airflow to the lungs.
Studies indicate pleural thickening develops in 5 to 13.5 percent of asbestos workers. It can occur as early as a year after asbestos exposure, but usually develops within 15 to 30 years.
Atelectasis, also known as asbestos pseudotumor or Blesovsky Syndrome, is a less common related condition that often accompanies pleural thickening. In this inflammatory condition, scar tissues contract and cause the pleural lining to fold into the lung. Although it is benign, atelectasis may look like a malignancy on an imaging scan. Doctors may request a biopsy to differentiate this benign condition from cancer.
Rounded atelectasis is the form of atelectasis that’s common among asbestos workers. Approximately 65 to 70 percent of people diagnosed with rounded atelectasis were exposed to asbestos.
Rounded atelectasis is an abnormal form of lung collapse that typically occurs next to scarred pleural tissue. Most cases are asymptomatic. Patients with asbestosis who develop rounded atelectasis are more likely to experience symptoms, which include difficulty breathing, rapid, shallow breathing, coughing and fever.
Surgical intervention is only considered for cases where lung function is severely compromised or when cancer is suspected. Pulmonary rehabilitation and medications to open airways are used to manage the condition.
Although exposure does not directly cause Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), it can increase a person’s risk of developing the condition. Patients with COPD may also have weaker lungs that are more susceptible to additional related diseases.
More than 24 million Americans are affected by COPD. Helpful treatment for COPD includes medication, oxygen therapy, breathing techniques and pulmonary rehabilitation.
In some cases, patients may develop both benign and malignant illnesses. It is not uncommon for patients to be diagnosed with multiple asbestos-related diseases within their lifetime. Because of this, anyone who has been exposed should register for regular health screenings for the rest of their life.
Karen Selby joined Asbestos.com in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the director of a tissue bank before becoming a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. Karen has assisted surgeons with thoracic surgeries such as lung resections, lung transplants, pneumonectomies, pleurectomies and wedge resections. She is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators.
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