What are the health risks from asbestos?

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Asbestos poses a significant risk to health if its fibres are released, and inhaled or ingested. As one of the most carcinogenic substances known to man, it causes life-threatening disease over an extended period of time.

It’s not unknown for 60 years to pass between initial exposure and the onset of symptoms, with the average length of time being around 35 years. Sharp, brittle asbestos fibres become easily lodged within the outer lining of the lungs, causing malignant pleural mesothelioma when inhaled.

Ingestion of fibres is also a possibility, resulting in peritoneal mesothelioma – a disease equally as devastating, albeit less common than pleural mesothelioma. Other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and pleural thickening, although not necessarily life-threatening, often have a devastating effect on victims to the extent that their quality of life is affected on a day-to-day basis.

Here we look in more detail at some of these diseases, their symptoms, available treatments, and likely prognoses.

Malignant mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma

The nature of asbestos fibres makes them difficult to expel from the body, so once inhaled the danger of them setting up disease in later life is quite significant. They can become lodged in the pleural membrane, which is the outer lining of the lungs, and cause cellular change over time.

Unfortunately, this disease is often at an advanced stage once diagnosed, limiting the treatment options available. Victims suffer from shortness of breath, a chronic cough, and fatigue, and the prognosis is generally months rather than years.

Peritoneal mesothelioma

The peritoneum, or lower digestive tract, is affected when asbestos fibres are ingested. Sufferers of malignant peritoneal mesothelioma often have a slightly better prognosis and a higher survival rate.

Symptoms include abdominal pain, swelling, and loss of weight, and a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy is often used to treat the disease. There were 2,515 deaths from mesothelioma in 2014, according to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics.

Asbestos-related lung cancer

Lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos generally appears the same as other forms of lung cancer, and unless there is a definite history of asbestos exposure it can be difficult for doctors to categorically state that this was the cause.

It is a rare disease with symptoms of a chronic cough, constant shortness of breath, extreme fatigue and loss of weight. Treatment options often depend on an individual’s age and general state of health, but again, because of the long latency period a patient may present at a late stage, making medical intervention limited.

Those who have been exposed to asbestos and who also smoke are at much greater risk of developing asbestos-related lung cancer. The Health and Safety Executive estimate more than 2,000 deaths occur from this disease every year.²

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a chronic condition of the lungs that causes persistent shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue and chest pain. Due to lung tissue being scarred by the inhalation of asbestos fibres, the lungs are unable to function as normal.

This damage is irreversible and there is no cure for asbestosis, but stopping smoking helps, and it can be treated in various ways including the use of long-term oxygen therapy. The prognosis for asbestosis patients depends on the extent of their exposure, how soon medical help is sought, and their overall level of health.

Asbestosis can reduce the victim’s life expectancy in its own right, but sufferers sometimes go on to develop asbestos-related lung cancer or mesothelioma. According to HSE statistics, there were 431 deaths due to this disease in 2014.

Non-malignant pleural disease

Pleural thickening

Diffuse pleural thickening is a scarring or calcification of the pleura, the tissue surrounding the lungs, and can affect one or both lungs. It causes severe shortness of breath and tightness in the chest due to the lung function being compromised, and although not life-threatening, can significantly affect a victim’s quality of life.

As with other asbestos-related diseases, several decades can pass before any symptoms are felt. Treatment options include steroids, antibiotics, and oxygen therapy to relieve the breathing difficulties.

Pleural plaques

Pleural plaques describe single areas of pleural thickening, and in general, present fewer health problems for sufferers. Some people don’t even realise they have pleural plaques, and continue to live their life as normal.

HSE figures estimate there were 564 new cases of non-malignant pleural disease due to asbestos in 2015, as reported by chest specialists, but a large number of these were pleural plaques.