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 asbestos. 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 an asbestos-related 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 currently 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 asbestos-related cancer, people who inhaled or ingested large amounts of asbestos for extended periods of time have the highest risk of developing these cancers.
With asbestos exposure responsible for 70 to 80 percent of all cases, mesothelioma is the signature asbestos-related cancer. It is also one of the most deadly asbestos-related diseases, causing more than 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.
Even though asbestos is only responsible for a small portion of all lung cancer diagnoses, lung cancer is still one of the most fatal asbestos-related malignancies. It claimed more than 155,870 lives in the U.S. in 2017, according to the National Cancer Institute.
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 a dramatic increased risk of developing small cell or non-small cell lung cancer above and beyond the risk of lung cancer in smokers who have not been exposed to asbestos.
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.
Another asbestos-related malignant disease is laryngeal cancer. 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.
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 asbestos exposure. Until research indicates otherwise, asbestos may be able to 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 asbestos-related malignancies. In one study of 231 asbestos-exposed workers, 99 developed at least one benign lung abnormality after exposure to asbestos.
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 cumulative exposure.
While cancers typically have a latency period of several decades, non-cancerous illnesses can arise within only a few years. One case study even revealed the presence of asbestos-related pleural effusions less than one year after the patient’s exposure.
Asbestosis is a benign yet potentially 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, asbestosis 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 of any other asbestos-related disease, but they are often a symptom of late-stage mesothelioma or non-mesothelioma bronchogenic carcinomas. On their own, they are not immediately life-threatening, but if accumulated 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. It should be noted that a pleurodesis attempted is not always successful in preventing the reaccumulation of cancerous fluid surrounding the lung.
Pleural plaques arise fairly frequently after asbestos 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 unless there is a malignant transformation of the plaques into an invasive malignant process.
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.
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Asbestos 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.
Atelactasis, which is defined as an under inflation of the lungs upon inhalation, has been associated with a recognized asbestos associated disorder. This rather rare disease is known as asbestos psuedotumor or Blesovsky Syndrome. It is a less common asbestos-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 asbestos-related cancers.
Although asbestos exposure does not directly cause Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), asbestos exposure can increase a person’s risk of developing the condition. Patients with COPD may also have weaker lungs that are more susceptible to additional asbestos-related diseases.
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 to asbestos 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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