Asbestos Related Disorders

  • Medical Author:
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Understanding COPD

What is the definition of asbestos?

Asbestos is a family of naturally occurring silica compounds (similar to, but not the same as, the silica of window glass and computer chips). These substances form fibers with varying shapes and sizes and are found throughout the earth. There are three commonly available types of asbestos:

  1. chrysotile (white asbestos),
  2. amosite (brown asbestos), and
  3. crocidolite (blue asbestos).

All three have been associated with cancerous and non-cancerous lung disease.

Asbestos has been used frequently in a variety of building materials for insulation and as a fire retardant, and in brake pads in cars. Today, it is found most commonly in older homes - in pipes, furnaces, roof shingles, millboard, textured paints, coating materials, and floor tiles.

What are the types of asbestos-related lung disease?

Lung disease from exposure to asbestos can be divided into three main types: 1) asbestosis, 2) disease of the lining of the lung (pleura), and 3) lung cancer.

  1. Asbestosis is a process of widespread scarring of the lungs.
  2. Disease of the lining of the lungs, called the pleura, has a variety of signs and symptoms and is the result of inflammation and the hardening (calcification) and/or thickening of the lining tissue.
  3. Lung cancer, either of the internal portions of the lungs or the outer lining (pleura).

All of the commonly available commercial forms of asbestos have been linked to cancerous and non-cancerous lung disease.

Asbestos-related lung disease occurred at very high rates toward the middle of the 20th century, when patients who were exposed decades earlier to asbestos eventually developed disease. British asbestos workers were among the first who were observed to have lung cancer related to asbestos.

Most current patients were once exposed to asbestos in:

  • mines,
  • mills,
  • factories, or
  • homes with asbestos, either in the process of carrying, installing, or removing asbestos, or while cleaning items laden with asbestos dust.

Some workers have been exposed to high concentrations of asbestos in:

  • automotive repair,
  • boilermaking,
  • construction,
  • pipefitting,
  • launderers of asbestos-containing clothing.

Continuing sources of exposure are asbestos removal and general construction industries. The delay between exposure to asbestos and the development of cancer can be anywhere from 10 to 40 or more years.

Despite not using asbestos in construction materials for the last 30 years, the number of deaths from asbestosis has increased over the past two decades. A 2009 study to assess the incidence of asbestos-related deaths concluded that the death rate is not expected to decrease sharply in the next 10 to 15 years. The World Health Organization reported in 2010 that more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis resulting from exposure at work.

Cases of asbestos exposure have been seen in the World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/7/2015

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