The Most Common Disease Caused by Asbestos Exposure
The four most common diseases associated with or linked to asbestos exposure are:
- Pleural Plaque
- Lung Cancer
Some historians suggest that the harmful effects of asbestos exposure have been recorded since the first century. Even so, the use of asbestos expanded through the Industrial Revolution and beyond. Officially, the first case of disease linked to asbestos, asbestosis, was diagnosed in 1924 in the United Kingdom.
Throughout the ʹ30s and ʹ40s, the use of asbestos continued to expand, particularly in industrial settings. The effects of asbestos exposure also then became more apparent. It wasn’t until the 1970’s when asbestos products were officially regulated in the United States by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The biggest challenge in diagnosing asbestos-related illnesses is their long “latency” period. This means that the illnesses may not show up for a long time after asbestos exposure-sometimes as long as 10 to 40 years.
The most common types of asbestos-related disease are asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
One of the effects of asbestos exposure is the formation of pleural plaques. Pleural plaques are bilateral areas of fibrosis present on the inner surface of the ribcage and the diaphragm that are often partly calcified. Pleural plaques, by themselves, are benign and cannot change into cancer.
About one-third to half of those exposed to asbestos will likely develop calcified pleural plaques, though not all asbestos-exposed workers develop pleural plaques.
Another of the effects of asbestos exposure is asbestosis. Asbestosis is a serious, chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease. Asbestosis starts when inhaled asbestos fibers become lodged in the lungs. Once these fibers settle in the lungs, they begin to aggravate lung tissues, causing them to scar. This scarring over time diminishes the lung’s capacity for oxygen.
Symptoms of asbestosis may include shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain and a dry crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling. The disease may eventually cause cardiac failure in its advanced stages. Those suffering from asbestos-caused cancers may also have asbestosis; however, asbestosis does not develop into any form of cancer.
Lung cancer causes the largest number of asbestos-related deaths. The incidence of lung cancer in people who are or were directly involved in the mining, milling, manufacturing and use of asbestos and related products is much higher than in the general population. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are coughing and a change in breathing. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent chest pains, hoarseness, and anemia.
People who have been exposed to asbestos and are also exposed to other carcinogens, such as those in cigarette smoke, have a significantly greater risk of developing lung cancer than people who have only been exposed to asbestos. One study indicates that asbestos workers who smoke are about 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer than people who neither smoke nor have been exposed to asbestos.
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that most often occurs in the thin membrane lining of the lungs, chest, and abdomen. Each year, approximately 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with mesothelioma. Virtually all cases of mesothelioma are linked to the effects of asbestos exposure.
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