Asbestos exposure is the main risk factor for pleural mesothelioma, but it can also put you at risk for developing other lung diseases, including cancer.
Smoking is still the primary cause of lung cancer in American adults, but asbestos can cause additional damage to the lungs and make them more susceptible to developing cancer.
The Dangers of Asbestos Exposure
Although asbestos is a natural mineral with many beneficial properties, it has been linked to cancer.
In the first half of the 20th century, there was a growing body of evidence that breathing in asbestos causes scarring of the lungs. Some efforts were made to control asbestos dust in the workplace, but large numbers of workers were exposed to the mineral in the shipbuilding effort during World War II.
By the second half of the 20th century, asbestos-related cancers were better recognized and measures were taken to reduce exposure.
Asbestos Exposure and Lung Cancer
According to Vogelzang Law, a 1986 report from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited lung cancer as the greatest risk for workers who handle the substance.
Other studies from that same year found that residents of Libby, Montana, home to a large asbestos mining operation, were developing lung cancer at much higher rates than average. An updated study from 2007 found that residents of the town had significantly higher mortality rates from lung cancer and asbestosis.
Tests performed on different rodent species using different methods of exposure found that asbestos does cause cancer in animals. Asbestos in any form causes tumors in animals, but the size and shape of the asbestos fibers does have an influence on the incidence of tumors. Smaller, straighter fibers were more hazardous. The exact cause for this is unknown, but it is believed that these types of fibers are better able to reach the deepest parts of the lungs.
While asbestos exposure can lead to lung cancer, it’s important to note that only 4% of the 220,000 cases of lung cancer in 2017 were caused by asbestos exposure.
With that said, it can take 15-35 years to develop cancer from asbestos exposure. Symptoms can include:
- Fatigue and loss of appetite
- Coughing up blood
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent cough
- Chronic respiratory infections
- Swelling of the neck or face
- Hoarseness or wheezing
Unfortunately, these symptoms typically arise after the cancer has progressed to a later stage of development. Lung cancer is rarely diagnosed in its early stages unless the patient is regularly screened. People with a history of asbestos exposure should seek regular screenings for asbestos-related diseases.
In addition to lung cancer and mesothelioma, asbestos exposure can also cause asbestosis, a type of lung disease. This occurs when asbestos fibers lodge deep within the lungs and cause scarring. The scarring makes it harder to breathe and can also cause a chronic cough. Asbestosis generally occurs 10-20 years after the initial exposure, and it can get worse over time. There is no effective treatment for this disease at this time.