What Diseases Can Be Caused by Asbestos?

Mesothelioma and asbestosis are the most common asbestos-related diseases. But there are many other diseases also linked to asbestos exposure. 

Malignant Asbestos-Related Diseases

  • Mesothelioma, pleural and peritoneal
  • Lung cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Laryngeal cancer

Malignant Diseases Possibly Linked to Asbestos Exposure

  • Pharyngeal cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Colon cancer

Nonmalignant Asbestos-Related Diseases

  • Hyaline pleural plaques
  • Asbestosis
  • Pleural thickening
  • Pleural effusion
  • Atelectasis
  • Peritoneal effusion (ascites)
  • Pericardial effusion

There are two major disease types: Benign and malignant (cancerous). Some asbestos-related diseases are benign, but they can still be life-threatening.

Malignant Asbestos-Related Diseases

Malignant asbestos-related diseases include cancers such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, laryngeal cancer and bile duct cancer.

Any amount of exposure can cause asbestos-related cancer. People with the highest risk have inhaled or ingested large amounts of asbestos for extended periods of time.

Mesothelioma

The CDC found that more than 45,200 people died of mesothelioma in the U.S. between 1999 and 2015. Asbestos exposure remains the No. 1 cause of work-related deaths in the world.

Doctors diagnose about 3,000 people in the U.S. each year with mesothelioma. On average, the prognosis is poor. Most patients live less than one year from time of diagnosis. Some patients also have coexisting conditions that can affect treatment. These conditions include diabetes or heart disease.

Mesothelioma forms in membranes of body cavities. Tumors can appear on the lining of the lungs, stomach, heart or testes. Respectively, these diseases are pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma and testicular mesothelioma.

Each type of mesothelioma has a unique set of symptoms. Chest or abdominal pain and shortness of breath affect many patients.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is still one of the most fatal asbestos-related malignancies. Asbestos is only responsible for a small number of all diagnoses. The disease claimed more than 155,870 lives in the U.S. in 2017, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Asbestos-exposed smokers have significantly increased risk of small cell or non-small cell lung cancer above and beyond the risk of lung cancer in smokers without asbestos exposure.

Ovarian Cancer

Researchers confirmed the link between asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer in 2009. Asbestos fibers may travel in the bloodstream, lymph system or reproductive tract.

A 2021 clinical research study noted that groups of people with work-related asbestos exposure have a 2.25-fold increased risk of mortality from ovarian cancer on average. The researchers advocated that work-related ovarian cancer should be assigned the same recognition requirements as in occupational lung and laryngeal cancer. 

Laryngeal Cancer

Another asbestos-related malignant disease is laryngeal cancer. There is a proven link between this cancer and asbestos exposure. Smoking and heavy alcohol use are more important risk factors for laryngeal cancer.

Bile Duct Cancer

In 2009, results from a research study found an increased rate of bile duct cancer among patients who had sustained occupational or household exposure to asbestos.

Bile ducts connect the gallbladder to the liver and small intestines. They deliver enzymes for digestion. Asbestos fibers can become trapped in these tiny tubules.

Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma is bile duct cancer that is present within the liver. In a study published in 2020, 40% of ICC patients reported asbestos exposure as their only risk factor. ICC incidence and mortality are rising worldwide. A link to asbestos exposure may explain this increase.

Other Asbestos-Related Cancers

Other cancers possibly associated with asbestos exposure include esophageal cancer, gallbladder cancer, kidney cancer and throat cancer.

Studies on the connection between asbestos and these malignant tumors are inconsistent. Asbestos is a suspected contributor to risk. But the link is not established.

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Benign Asbestos-Related Diseases

Benign asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis and pleural effusions, are not cancerous. These are somewhat more common than asbestos-related malignancies.

Malignant and benign diseases may develop after one exposure. But malignant conditions usually result from years of cumulative exposure.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. It causes lung scarring and inflammation. The lung disease is not cancer. But it can be deadly.

The condition is an interstitial lung disease (ILD). Other contributors to ILD include exposure to silica dust, coal dust, cotton dust and hard metal dusts. Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, sarcoidosis and other connective tissue and blood disorders are linked to ILD.

Even though it is benign, asbestosis can be serious. Asbestosis was an underlying or contributing cause of death for more than 1,400 people in the U.S. between 2000 and 2007.

According to a 2018 study published in the journal NPJ Primary Care Respiratory Medicine, asbestosis is prevalent in a wide range of construction jobs such as carpentry, pipefitting, lagging and painting.

Asbestosis and Asbestosis Symptoms
Diagram shows how asbestosis scars lung tissue, leading to several symptoms.

Pleural Effusions

Pleural effusions are a buildup of fluid between the layers of the pleural membrane. They collect in the chest cavity, leading to lung compression and shortness of breath. Effusions can develop independently of other asbestos-related diseases. But they often are a symptom of late-stage mesothelioma or nonmesothelioma cancers.

On their own, pleural effusions are not immediately life-threatening. Over time, they may cause pain and interfere with breathing. A pleurodesis can prevent recurrence. The procedure causes the pleural membranes to stick together. This prevents a space from forming for the liquid to accumulate.

Fluids can still collect around the lung if the procedure didn’t completely adhere the membranes.

Benign asbestos pleural effusion

Peritoneal Effusions

Peritoneal effusion refers to an excess collection of fluid in the abdominal cavity. This condition is also called ascites and can be treated by removing the fluids.

Similar to pleural effusions, if the underlying contributor to ascites is not addressed, the condition can recur.

Peritoneal mesothelioma is a rare cause of the condition. Effusions are more likely linked to benign conditions or other cancer types.

Pericardial Effusions

Pericardial effusion is the collection of excess fluid between the layers of the membrane surrounding the heart. This condition leads to significant shortness of breath and chest pain.

Treatments can remove the fluid. But a pericardial effusion may be a sign of pericardial mesothelioma. Benign diseases, including viral infections, can also cause it.

Pleural Plaques

Pleural plaques occur frequently after asbestos exposure. Calcified buildups on the pleural membrane are not considered a serious health issue. But they can make breathing painful if they become very thick.

Experts disagree whether plaques lead to cancer or signal previous asbestos exposure.

Pleural Plaques Caused by Asbestos

Pleuritis

Pleuritis is inflammation of the pleura. The condition is also known as pleurisy or pleuritic chest pain. The asbestos-inflamed surfaces become rough and rub against each other. This results in sharp pain in the chest or shoulder.

The pain is often worse when the patient is breathing, coughing or moving. Pleurisy may occur with pleural effusions.

Pleuritis Caused by Asbestos
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Diffuse Pleural Thickening

Asbestos exposure can cause diffuse pleural thickening. The condition affects 8 centimeters to one-quarter of the pleura.

Diffuse pleural thickening may decrease lung function. But it rarely leads to death.

Atelectasis

Atelectasis is an underinflation of the lungs upon inhalation. It is also known as a partial collapse of the lung. The condition may be secondary to many other causes. By itself, it is rarely associated with asbestos exposure.

It is an uncommon asbestos-related condition and may present with pleural thickening. Although it is benign, atelectasis may look like cancer on an imaging scan. A biopsy will differentiate this from asbestos-related cancers.

Atelectasis Caused by Asbestos

COPD

Asbestos exposure does not directly cause Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). But it can increase a person’s risk of developing the condition. COPD may weaken the lungs. This makes people more susceptible to other asbestos-related diseases.

COPD is a disease that damages the lungs and causes difficulty breathing.

Image of lung conditions involved in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Two examples depict a healthy airway compared to constricted bronchi during bronchitis and healthy alveoli compared to inflamed air sacs during emphysema.
COPD is a disease that damages the lungs and causes difficulty breathing.

In some cases, patients may develop benign COPD-type illnesses and malignant cancers. Anyone with past asbestos exposure should get regular screenings. These can ensure timely diagnosis of all pulmonary and asbestos-related conditions.

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