Illnesses Associated with Asbestos Exposure
Hundreds of thousands of people have developed serious illnesses after being exposed to asbestos. Many of these illnesses are potentially fatal. They can also take a significant period of time to develop - often, patients only begin to experience symptoms decades after exposure. This article provides an overview of some of the most common illnesses associated with asbestos exposure.
Asbestos is a mineral that was widely used in construction, manufacturing, and industry up until the late twentieth century. People working in environments with asbestos (especially people who directly handled materials containing asbestos) are at a high risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses. Construction workers, manufacturing workers, asbestos miners, boiler workers, shipyard workers, navy veterans, and auto mechanics make up a significant percentage of patients diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses. People who live in the same household as those exposed to asbestos are also at risk.
Asbestos causes significant health problems when its airborne fibers are inhaled. These fibers can settle in the lungs, neighboring tissue, and even spread to other parts the body. Over time, these fibers can scar lung tissue and cause cells in the lungs and surrounding areas to become cancerous. This gradual damage normally occurs over a period of many years, leaving patients with asbestos-related illnesses unaware of their condition until symptoms become noticeable. Patients may first begin to notice a problem twenty to fifty years after being exposed to asbestos.
Lung cancer is the most common asbestos-related illness. More patients develop lung cancer than any other asbestos-related illness, and lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Common signs and symptoms of lung cancer include:
- Chronic cough (also called "smoker's cough")
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Bone pain
There are many risk factors that can make patients more likely to develop lung cancer. Chief among these is smoking, the leading cause of lung cancer. Patients who are exposed to asbestos and who smoke are far more likely to develop lung cancer than patients who were only exposed to asbestos. Other lung cancer risk factors include exposure to second hand smoke, exposure to certain gases and chemicals, and a family history of lung cancer.
Patients diagnosed with lung cancer have limited treatment options. Surgery can remove cancerous tissue, while chemotherapy and radiation treatment can kill cancer cells. There are also a number of drugs available that seek to prevent the growth or spread of cancer. However, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 16%. Many treatment options seek to ease symptoms.
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects the thin layer of tissue surrounding the internal organs. The disease is highly lethal. Only around 10% of mesothelioma patients survive for more than five years after being diagnosed, and the average survival time following diagnosis is one year. Around 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year in the United States.
Patients can develop one of four types of mesothelioma. Around 70%-80% of patients develop mesothelioma affecting the lungs (Pleural Mesothelioma). Around 10%-20% of patients develop abdominal mesothelioma (Peritoneal Mesothelioma). Uncommon forms of mesothelioma affect the tissue lining the heart (Pericardial Mesothelioma) and testicles (Mesothelioma of the Tunic Vaginis). These two types of mesothelioma affect around 1% of patients.
While each form of mesothelioma can have different symptoms, common symptoms include pain, swelling, and unusual lumps in the affected area. Unexplained weight loss is another symptom that's common to all forms of mesothelioma. There's no cure or effective treatment to reverse mesothelioma.
Another common asbestos-related illness is asbestosis. Asbestosis involves the scarring of lung tissue. It can result in shortness of breath and other lung-related problems. Patients with asbestosis may also experience coughing, chest pain, unexplained weight loss, and similar symptoms.
There is no effective treatment to reverse the effects of asbestosis. Some treatments can relieve symptoms and prevent the disease from worsening over time. Doctors may prescribe oxygen treatment for patients with significant breathing problems. Some patients with severe symptoms may be candidates for lung transplant surgery.