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Asbestos-Related Cancers and Diseases

In addition to mesothelioma, asbestos is linked to more than a dozen different types of cancers, respiratory diseases and illnesses. They can range from benign to life threatening and must be treated with caution. In some cases, the sicknesses are a direct result of asbestos contact, and, in other cases, asbestos exposure can increase the likelihood of the illness.

From the early 1900s to the early 1980s, asbestos use was prevalent throughout the United States. Because of its heat- and fire-resistant properties, it was used in everything from clothing to submarines. In the early 1930s, it became common knowledge among medical professionals that asbestos was linked to mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer that attacks the lungs, heart or chest area. Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will develop mesothelioma. In some cases, exposure causes other medical problems:


Even though asbestosis is not considered a cancer, it is still considered to be deadly. This chronic disease causes scarring and inflammation of lung tissue, making it increasingly difficult to breathe normally.

Asbestosis is formed when sharp amphibole asbestos fibers penetrate the air sacs in the lungs, called the alveoli, and cause the body’s immune system to attack itself. In an attempt to heal itself, the body puts down layers of connective tissue on the lungs. This creates a matrix of scar tissue that causes the lung walls to thicken and prevents the lungs from working efficiently.

The symptoms of asbestosis are similar to other, less serious diseases, so asbestosis often goes wrongly diagnosed for years. These include coughing, chest pains, loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss. In addition, those who are diagnosed with asbestosis have some specific symptoms that are exclusive to the disease:

Lung Crackles

This is a clicking, rattling or crackling noise made by the lungs while inhaling. They can often only be heard with a stethoscope and are typically classified as dry in asbestosis patients. Misshapen fingernails – Also called nail clubbing, this is most often associated with a variety of lung or heart diseases. In this, the nails appear angled or curved downward in the shape of an upside-down spoon. It is commonly caused by a reduced amount of oxygen in the bloodstream.


This scarring of the lungs most often occurs in the lower lobes. There is no known cure for asbestosis. Instead, patients are given oxygen therapy to relieve shortness of breath, respiratory therapy to remove lung secretions and medication to relieve pain and thin secretions. Those with asbestosis have a high risk of developing lung cancer.

Pleural Effusion

Caused by the buildup of fluids in the space that surrounds the lungs, called the pleural cavity, this disease makes breathing difficult, causes chest pains and a severe cough, among other symptoms.

Normally, there is a small amount of fluid in the pleura space that acts as a lubricant for internal organs. In an effusion, fluids collect in the space, putting increased pressure on the lungs and other organs.

A pleural effusion develops after a patient has had ongoing contact with asbestos. Often these patients will develop mesothelioma and an effusion simultaneously. In some cases, an effusion is a sign of advanced-stage mesothelioma. In other cases, it develops by itself after asbestos contact.

In most cases, pleural effusion patients are treated with a surgically inserted chest tube to drain the fluids. If mesothelioma accompanies the effusion, chemotherapy is typically prescribed.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – Although asbestos exposure is not directly linked to COPD, it can increase the risk of developing the condition. Patients with COPD naturally have weaker lungs, making them more susceptible to the ravages of asbestos.

Pleural Plaques

After prolonged exposure to asbestos, the lungs can be severely damaged and scarred. This scarring causes hardened deposits on the lungs, interior chest walls and diaphragm, called plaques. Since they don’t typically interfere with breathing or cause immediate problems, they serve as a warning to doctors that the patient had ongoing asbestos contact.

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