Asbestos-related diseases are caused by breathing in asbestos fibres. These microscopic particles are released into the air when asbestos is disturbed or damaged. If inhaled, the fibres become trapped in the lungs and over long periods of time, can cause inflammation, scarring and disease.
There are 4 main diseases caused by asbestos exposure:
Pleural plaques and pleural thickening are non-cancerous conditions affecting the outer lining of the lungs (the pleura). Pleural plaques are small areas of scarring which have thickened on the pleura. They are usually about the size of a coin and can be present on one or both lungs. They become harder and more calcified over time. They do not cause any symptoms but are an indicator of asbestos exposure.
Pleural thickening is a more serious condition. The patches are more widespread and both layers of the pleura may be involved. Pleural thickening can cause the lungs to be restricted and not expand properly which may lead to breathlessness.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lungs or, more rarely, the lining of the abdomen (known as peritoneal mesothelioma). Virtually all cases are believed to be caused by exposure to asbestos. There are approximately 2500 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in the UK each year. It is expected that this figure will continue to rise in the next few years. Historically, mesothelioma treatments have been limited but more therapies are emerging that may have a positive impact on symptoms and survival.
Asbestosis is a type of pulmonary (lung) scarring of the lungs caused by inhaling asbestos fibres or dust, often through exposure at work. It is a benign (non-cancerous) condition. The body’s reaction to the asbestos fibres causes damage to the fragile air sacs in the lungs, making it more difficult for oxygen to get into the bloodstream which may result in breathlessness.
Unfortunately, the lung damage caused by asbestos cannot be reversed and may continue to progress. Asbestosis can increase your risk of getting lung cancer.
According to Cancer Research UK, lung cancer was the third most common cancer diagnosed in the UK in 2014. In most cases, it is caused by smoking, so it is advisable to stop, if you can. Support to stop smoking is available from your GP or local ‘stop smoking’ services. However, more than 10% of people with lung cancer have never smoked. It is recognised that being exposed to asbestos can increase your risk of developing lung cancer.