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Home > Mesothelioma and asbestos > Asbestos-related diseases

Asbestos-related diseases

Asbestos is very dangerous for health.

There are many health risks associated with asbestos including a variety of cancers. One of the most disconcerting facts about asbestos related illnesses is that even people who do not come in direct contact with asbestos can be adversely affected.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

When asbestos is separated into very fine fibres, it becomes a serious health hazard. These fine fibres enter the body mainly through breathing. Fibres which cannot be coughed up or breathed out become trapped, causing cancers and irreparable scarring of the lungs. The killer qualities are associated with the length, diameter and strength of the fibres. The risk of disease is dose related. There is no safe level of exposure but increased exposure will increases the risk.

A typical fibre is approximately 2,000 times thinner than a human hair. It is believed that smaller, thinner, "respirable" fibres, measuring less than 0.3 microns (a millionth of a millimetre) in diameter and less than 5 microns in length are the ones which do the most damage. These fibres are invisible to the naked eye. Fibres up to 0.5 microns in width are not even visible under the optical microscope, the instrument used to analyse air samples.

Some of the small fibres remain in the lower parts of the lung for years. Some work their way through the lung lining. The fibres can induce cancers though it is not known how. There is speculation that macrophages, cells which are part of the body's defence mechanisms, try to engulf the fibres, but fail because of their shape. In the process they release powerful chemicals which may do the damage.

There are a lot of asbestos-related diseases.


This is a malignant tumour of the lung (or abdominal) lining. Because it takes a long time for mesothelioma to develop following asbestos exposure, many workers will still continue to contract the disease, from inhalation a long time ago. The incidence of mesothelioma has been increasing, expecting to reach a peak in the year 2017. The estimated number of deaths due to mesothelioma is expected to double, perhaps even reaching about 250,000 deaths worldwide over the next 35 years!


One of the more severe health risks associated with asbestos is a chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease called asbestosis. Asbestosis occurs when asbestos fibers are inhaled into the lungs thereby causing lung tissues to become aggravated and scarred.

Some symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath and a dry, wheezing sound made by the lungs upon inhalation. Some of the more serious risks include cardiac failure which occurs primarily in advanced stages of asbestosis.

Unfortunately there is currently no effective treatment for asbestosis and it can therefore be progressively disabling and even fatal. While other asbestos related illnesses can affect people who do not come in direct contact with asbestos but are merely victims of second-hand exposure, asbestosis rarely affects anyone other than individuals who work with asbestos.

Lung Cancer

All types of asbestos can increase the risk lung cancer. The risk of cancer increases, the more and the longer people are exposed to asbestos. Patients who smoke and have had asbestos exposure are at the highest risk of lung cancer (at least 30 times the risk of other people!) – so all smokers are strongly encouraged to stop smoking, immediately. The management and prognosis of asbestos related lung cancer is similar to that of other lung cancers, but operations to cure the cancer are often less possible as scarred lungs cannot stand the big procedures involved.

Benign Pleural Effusions

This is where fluid builds up between the lining of the lung and the inner lining of the ribs. It may pass without any symptoms or present with acute breathlessness, fever and sharp chest pain. The fluid (effusion) can be on one or both lungs. They tend to resolve without treatment, however if a patient is particularly breathless, the fluid can be removed with a needle or chest drain. However, fluid can recur at a later date.

Benign Pleural Plaques

These are smooth elevations of the lining of the lung. They are strongly associated with asbestos exposure, and may occur even after low exposure. They usually take at least 10 years to form. Plaques do not cause any symptoms in themselves and can be picked up on routine chest x-ray. Although the plaques are not thought to be precursors for cancer, the incidence of malignancy is higher in these individuals, because of the background exposure to asbestos.

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