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Asbestos Exposure and Your Health

For more than 100 years, health officials have linked asbestos to a number of serious and life-threatening diseases. Many other diseases are loosely associated with asbestos exposure, but without an official correlation.

While incidence rates for most of these illnesses have been slowly declining, there are still thousands of diagnoses made each year in the United States.

Most asbestos-related diseases, such as malignant mesothelioma, affect the respiratory system. The fibers often enter the body through inhalation, and the esophagus and lungs are the first organs the fibers reach.

However, the lymphatic system can transport fibers to other parts of the body, where they can cause similar carcinogenic processes.

Asbestos-Related Cancers

Mesothelioma is the primary cancer caused by asbestos. This treatment-resistant disease develops in the mesothelium, or lining of the lungs, stomach or heart. It’s important to note that mesothelioma is not a type of lung cancer.

Almost all cases of mesothelioma are the result of asbestos exposure; however, the tumors typically do not develop until 20 to 50 years after exposure occurred. Patients may note symptoms such as coughing, chest pain and shortness of breath. Mesothelioma is a very serious illness with an average prognosis of about a year.

Lung cancer is another common health complication associated with asbestos exposure. Since asbestos-related lung cancer looks the same as other lung cancers, the only way to attribute a case to exposure is by going through a patient’s exposure history.

Researchers have also linked asbestos exposure to laryngeal and ovarian cancers. Exposure mayplay a role in the development of colorectal and gastrointestinal cancers as well.

Non-Malignant Asbestos-Related Diseases

Cancer isn’t the only asbestos-related health complication. Once trapped inside the body, the fibers can cause irritation and cellular damage, without leading to cancerous developments.

Asbestosis is a type of pulmonary fibrosis that causes scarring in the lungs. This scar tissue impedes healthy lung function, and causes symptoms similar to those of mesothelioma. Although it is not a cancer, it can become life-threatening, as the scar tissue makes breathing difficult and painful.

Pleural plaques, pleuritis and a build-up of fluid in the lungs can also occur after asbestos exposure. 

Additional Health Factors

Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will develop health complications. In fact, nearly everyone is exposed to low doses of the fibers throughout their lives, and few become ill.

The length – and intensity – of a person’s exposure plays a significant role in their disease risk. Most asbestos-related illnesses are the result of regular, high-dose exposure over the course of several years. For instance, a lifelong asbestos industry worker is much more likely to develop mesothelioma than someone who was exposed to the fibers for one day during a home renovation.

Smokers also have a higher susceptibility to asbestos diseases. While tobacco use does notcause people to develop asbestos-related diseases, it can weaken their lungs and make them more vulnerable to injury.

Genetics can also make people more or less likely to become ill after asbestos exposure. Recent research has shown that certain cellular traits – as well as the presence or absence of certain biological markers – can impact the body’s response to exposure.


Faith Franz is a writer for The Mesothelioma Center. She likes to spread the word about the benefits of alternative medicine.