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Asbestos and its effects on health

According to the HSE, around 4500 people die each year in the UK from asbestos-related diseases. In this post, we’ll look at some of the most common asbestos-related illnesses, drawing on content from our asbestos awareness course.


Asbestosis is an incurable illness particular to asbestos exposure. It causes the accumulative blocking of the lungs with fibres and associated scar tissue. It may result from 2-3 years of very heavy exposure to asbestos or take 15-30 years. It is usually fatal within 2–5 years.


Mesothelioma is also particular to asbestos exposure. It is a cancer of the membrane lining (pleura) of the chest cavity. The cancer can take 30 – 40 years after initial exposure to develop. However, it is usually fatal within 2 years – and often less than that. It is also incurable.

Mesothelioma has recently been brought to public attention via a storyline in the ITV soap, Emmerdale.

Lung cancer

Lung cancers are often, although not always, fatal. It usually takes at least 20 years of exposure to asbestos for the cancer to develop. However, the risk of contracting lung cancer is greatly increased in smokers:

  • Smokers are approximately five times more likely than non-smokers to develop lung cancer.
  • Those exposed to asbestos are approximately 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer.
  • Smokers exposed to asbestos are approximately 50 times more likely to develop lung cancer.

Pleural plaques

Pleural plaques are not usually fatal on their own but will make other respiratory illnesses, including asbestos-related ones, more life threatening. Pleural thickening is caused by scarring of the lung surface and the lining of the lung cavity (pleura) from asbestos exposure. It usually takes at least 10 years to develop.


All asbestos illnesses become more likely to occur the more you have worked with Asbestos Containing Materials, disturbed them and breathed in the fibres. If you have done this in the past, the important thing is to make sure you don’t do so in the future. Prevent your level of risk increasing and make it less likely you will become ill.

All exposures to asbestos fibres are to be avoided and even those who have not worked for very long in buildings are at risk and could be made ill by exposure to fibres.

 Whether you have worked with asbestos a little or a lot in the past, the key thing is to make sure you work safely in the future.