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What Are Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases?

Asbestos-related lung diseases are diseases caused by exposure to asbestos (as-BES-tos) fibers. Asbestos is a mineral that, in the past, was widely used in many industries.

Asbestos is made up of tiny fibers that can escape into the air. When breathed in, these fibers can stay in your lungs for a long time. If the fibers build up in your lungs, they can lead to:

  • Pleural plaque. In this condition, the tissue around the lungs and diaphragm (the muscle below your lungs) thickens and hardens. This tissue is called the pleura. Pleural plaque usually causes no symptoms. Rarely, as the pleura thickens, it can trap and compress part of the lung. This may show up as a mass on an x-ray image.
  • Pleural effusion. In this condition, excess fluid builds up in the pleural space. The pleural space is the area between the lungs and the chest wall.
  • Asbestosis (as-bes-TOE-sis). In this condition, the lung tissue becomes scarred. People who have asbestosis are at greater risk for lung cancer, especially if they smoke.
  • Lung cancer. This type of cancer forms in the lung tissue, usually in the cells lining the air passages.
  • Mesothelioma (MEZ-o-thee-lee-O-ma). This disease is cancer of the pleura.

Asbestos also can cause cancer in the lining of the abdominal cavity. This lining is known as the peritoneum (PER-ih-to-NE-um).

Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases

Figure A shows the location of the lungs, airways, pleura, and diaphragm in the body. Figure B shows lungs with asbestos-related diseases, including pleural plaque, lung cancer, asbestosis, plaque on the diaphragm, and mesothelioma.

Figure A shows the location of the lungs, airways, pleura, and diaphragm in the body. Figure B shows lungs with asbestos-related diseases, including pleural plaque, lung cancer, asbestosis, plaque on the diaphragm, and mesothelioma.

Overview

Until the 1970s, asbestos was widely used in many industries in the United States. For example, it was used to insulate pipes, boilers, and ships; make brakes; strengthen cement; and fireproof many items, such as drywall.

People who worked around asbestos during that time are at risk for asbestos-related lung diseases. People at highest risk include:

  • Unprotected workers who made, installed, or removed products containing asbestos. People who worked near others who did these jobs also are at risk.
  • Family members of workers who were exposed to asbestos. Family members may have breathed in asbestos fibers that workers brought home on their clothes, shoes, or bodies.
  • People who live in areas with large deposits of asbestos in the soil. This risk is limited to areas where the deposits were disturbed and asbestos fibers got into the air.

Asbestos fibers also can be released into the air when older buildings containing asbestos-made products are destroyed. Removing these products during building renovations also can release asbestos fibers into the air.

Generally, being around asbestos-made products isn’t a danger as long as the asbestos is enclosed. This prevents the fibers from getting into the air.

People in the United States are less likely to have asbestos-related lung diseases now because the mineral is no longer widely used.

The use of asbestos is heavily restricted, and rules and standards are now in place to protect workers and others from asbestos exposure. Asbestos is found in only a few new products, such as gaskets used in brakes.

However, many countries do not yet restrict asbestos use. People in those countries are still exposed to the mineral.

Outlook

The outlook for people who have asbestos-related lung diseases can vary. It will depend on which disease a person has and how much it has damaged the lungs.

No treatments can reverse the effects of asbestos on your lungs. However, treatments may help relieve symptoms, slow the progress of the disease, and prevent complications.

If you've been exposed to asbestos, let your doctor know. He or she can watch you for signs of asbestos-related problems and start treatment early, if needed. Early treatment may help prevent or delay complications.

Quitting smoking and making other lifestyle changes may help people who are at high risk for asbestos-related lung diseases. These lifestyle changes may prevent more serious diseases, such as cancer.

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Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans. To find clinical trials that are currently underway for Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases, visit www.clinicaltrials.gov.

 
May 01, 2011 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.