Asbestosis is caused by exposure to asbestos, a natural mineral that was previously used in construction and mining industries and particularly to make insulation. Miners, insulators, pipe fitters, plumbers, electricians, car mechanics and factory workers who worked with asbestos are all at greater risk of developing the disease.
Although asbestos is no longer used in new products, side-effects resulting from it can occur as much as 40 years after the initial exposure. If it becomes damaged, the tiny particles that make up the asbestos can become air bourne and are then breathed in by unsuspecting people, causing inflammation and penetrating the lung tissue.
Exposure occurs primarily in the workplace and sometimes by inhabiting an old building that was insulated with asbestos.
The body’s immune system sends white blood cells to find and neutralise the foreign fibers in the lung tissue but these fibers then destroy the blood cells, leading to permanent scarring.
• Chest pain and/or tightness;
• Shortness of breath, and in the latter stages of the disease, difficulty breathing;
• Sometimes a cancer may develop as a result of asbestosis. This is called mesothelioma and occurs in the lining of the lungs or abdominal wall and it is a type of cancer that is only caused by asbestos.
If you have a history of exposure to asbestos and also have the symptoms described, then a chest X-ray will be performed to confirm whether or not you have asbestosis. You would also be given lung function tests.
There is no cure for asbestosis but it can be managed. You may be given medications to widen blood vessels to improve your blood flow and medications to prevent blood clots. Steroids can be given to reduce inflammation. Oxygen therapy might also be offered to help with your breathing.
In a very severe case, you may need a lung transplant.
How Many People Suffer with Asbestosis?
According to the NHS, there were 825 claims for disability benefits due to asbestosis in the UK in 2005. In that year alone there were also 134 deaths from asbestosis and a further 1,800 deaths that occur every year from mesothelioma. They suggest that by the year 2050, a staggering 90,000 people will have died as a result of this asbestos triggered cancer.
In the U.S., several thousand are affected and there are around 600 deaths per year from asbestosis, making the disease an ever-present health risk.
Sources: NHS Choices and Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center.
Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/. She is author of the book, 'Breast Milk: A Natural Immunisation,' and co-author of an educational resource on disabled parenting, in addition to running a charity for people damaged by vaccines or medical mistakes.