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Asbestos: What It Does to Your Lungs

By HERWriter
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What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a fiber that was used as an insulator and fire-retardant in the past. While the EPA and CPSC have banned the use of asbestos for many things and it is no longer used in newer homes, it may still be found in homes and buildings built in a time when asbestos products were available. Asbestos is still used in pipe and furnace insulation, shingles, millboard, textured paints, and floor tiles.

Even without asbestos insulation, this fiber can become airborne through remodeling older homes, or improper protocols when cutting and cleaning up asbestos fibers from new home improvement projects.

Asbestos is also a naturally occurring mineral and can be found in soils and rocks and can be released into the air through construction or weather. So long as the soil and rock remain undisturbed, there is no health risk.

Asbestos and the Lungs

Those who have experienced prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers are at higher risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma and nonmalignant lung and pleural disorders like asbestosis, pleural plaques, pleural thickening, and pleural effusion. The progression of these conditions may continue even after exposure to asbestos has been restricted.

Asbestos-related lung conditions develop over time, up to 15 years or longer after preliminary exposure for those who work(ed) with asbestos. Smokers who are exposed to asbestos are at a significantly greater risk for asbestos-related conditions than non-smokers.

These conditions develop when asbestos fibers are not completely exhaled by the lungs. They remain lodged in the lungs and stay there. As the amount of fibers accumulate over the years, the lung tissue becomes scarred and inflamed. As the scarring and inflammation worsen, it becomes more and more difficult for a person to breathe.

Types of Asbestos-related Conditions


Asbestosis develops when the lung tissues become scarred or inflamed from prolonged exposure. Those who have been exposed to asbestos may develop asbestosis anywhere between 10 to 20 years after initial exposure. Some patients will have no symptoms at all while other patients will have very debilitating and potentially fatal symptoms.

Such symptoms include:

- shortness of breath
- continuous and productive cough
- tightness in the chest
- loss of appetite
- dry, crackling sound with inhaling


This is a rare cancer that affects the lining of the chest cavity, the outside of the lung (pleura) or abdominal area (peritoneum).

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a malignant disease that invades and obstructs the lung's air passages.

There is speculation that asbestos exposure can also lead to gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers, as well as cancers of the kidney, brain, larynx, and bladder. But no definitive correlation has been found.

Preventing Exposure

Asbestos poses no health threat so long as the products that contain asbestos remain undamaged or disturbed. The best idea is to just leave these products alone. If you are planning renovations either on an older house, or using products that still contain asbestos, make sure you contractor is trained and qualified to ensure that any disturbed asbestos is cleaned up. Also, ensure that all damaged or worn asbestos gloves, stove-top pads, or ironing board covers are thrown away and that local health, environmental, and other regulations are followed for proper, safe disposal.

Sources: www.atsdr.cdc.gov/asbestos (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry); www.epa.gov (United States Environmental Protection Agency); www.nhlbi.nih.gov (National Heart Lung and Blood Institute); www.medicinenet.com

Add a Comment4 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

I was exposed to toxic mold in a basement apartment. I have respiratory problems and cough up mucu a lot. At one point I was coghingup some black, which the doctor later said it could be blood that had been sitting. They did a CT scan and it showed a little inflammation, and the brochiascopy results were that there wasn't any bacteria or infection. They have no knowledge of mold contamination so I still haven't gotten check to see if any mold is growing on my lungs. I have shrtness of breath and still coughing up mucus. Can you tell me what I should do.

January 27, 2010 - 6:19am
HERWriter (reply to Anonymous)

Mold won't grow in your lungs, but prolonged exposure to it and other airborne contaminants can affect your lungs. A couple of suggestions (please keep in mind that I'm not a doctor but these seem common-sensical to me): Check with your landlord to get the carpeting replaced; If you need to, get a sample of your carpet and have your landlord or doctor have it tested for mold (there are a couple of home improvement TV programs that will do this as part of their show); if you're not getting the attention you believe you need from your doctor do not hesitate to get a second opinion (particularly if you've explained the mold situation to them and they don't seem to think it's an issue); I know this one is difficult, but find a new apartment. You won't be able to undo any damage to your lungs, but you can prevent any more damage from being done. I would go with the first few suggestions to start before going with this one. You want to be sure that wherever you live and work is safe.

Mold will also grow in walls, furniture (bedding, sofa, chairs) and curtains and drapes.

Again, please don't take this as a medical professional opinion.

I hope this helps.


January 27, 2010 - 7:58am

Thanks, Jonathan!


January 26, 2010 - 1:25pm
EmpowHER Guest

Thanks for this article – this is a great overview of the risks and some of the long-term effects of asbestos exposure. I’m a part of an online resource center (MesoRC.com) that can provide additional information on the topic to some of your readers who might be interested. They can learn more at http://www.mesorc.com/asbestos-exposure/

- Jonathan @ the Mesothelioma Resource Center

(Note from EmpowHer moderator: While the site referenced above does provide information, the site is provided by a law firm and contains business solicitations. EmpowHer is providing information only through this post and this post does not imply an endorsement of this firm. )

January 26, 2010 - 12:50pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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