Health And Asbestos

Health And Asbestos

If you are worried about your health in any way – you should discuss it with your doctor .

Asbestos contains tiny fibres of mineral silicates. Anyone breathing in these fibres has an increased danger to their health; particularly those people who have extensively worked with asbestos – for example: repairing boilers, constructing and or demolishing buildings, performing asbestos removal, etc. There is also an increased risk for anyone who lived close to an asbestos factory, as well as those who lived or worked in a building that contained friable materials that incorporate asbestos. The risk tends to be cumulative; so, while not recommended, infrequent contact is much less likely to cause health problems than prolonged exposure. Therefore, people who worked in the construction industry – as well as shipbuilding – before the end of the 20th century have a much increased likelihood of exposure, and therefore a greater risk of health problems.

Asbestos fibres are extremely irritating to the tissue of the lungs. If these fibres settle in them, the lung tissue may become thickened and scarred. This gradually makes it more difficult for oxygen in the air to get from the atmosphere and into the blood, and for the waste gas (carbon dioxide) to be breathed-out.

This section highlights the following topics:

In addition, contact with asbestos may cause skin irritation, and other problems such as asbestos warts.


Many years of exposure to asbestos are usually necessary to develop asbestosis. Typically this is 30-years, but it can be as long as 60-years and a short as ten.


The main symptoms of asbestosis are:

  • increasing breathlessness, especially when exercising;
  • coughing;
  • chest pain and
  • a feeling of tightness in the chest.

Asbestosis may damage the function of the lungs so much that the condition progresses to respiratory (breathing) failure. At this stage the oxygen supply to the body is so poor that the patient is always breathless and has blue-tinged skin (cyanosis) even when at rest in bed.

Other symptoms that sometimes occur are nail abnormalities, and clubbing of the fingers. Clubbing is when the fingers become thicker and broader, and the tip of the nail curves.


It is not possible to reverse or cure asbestosis, although if caught early enough the worsening of the condition can usually be slowed or even stopped. The speed at which the condition progresses depends on several factors, for instance: how much asbestos has been breathed in, whether the disease has occurred very soon after exposure, whether there are other symptoms such as clubbing, and if the patient smokes. The main treatment used in asbestosis is oxygen therapy, which increases the flow of oxygen into the body and counteracts the effects of breathlessness.

Corticosteroids or immunosuppressive drugs may be used to relieve the symptoms. A procedure called thoracentesis, which involves draining fluid from the lungs may make breathing easier. Lung transplantation is not extensively used, but it has occasionally had success in treating the condition. Stopping smoking can help to slow the progress of the condition and help to reduce the chances of lung cancer. People with asbestosis are particularly vulnerable to chest infections, so they should have regular flu and pneumococcal vaccinations.


What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer effecting the mesothelial cells. These cells cover the outer surface of many of the internal organs of the body, forming a lining that is sometimes called the mesothelium, hence its name.

Mesothelioma cancer can develop in the tissues covering the lungs or the abdomen.

Mesothelioma in the chest

The ‘pleura’ is a fibrous tissue lining (or covering) that helps to protect the lungs, forming the ‘intrapleural space’. This space is filled with a serous lubricating fluid produced by the pleura. This helps the lungs to move smoothly in the chest when they are inflating and deflating as we breathe.

Mesothelioma is most often diagnosed in the pleura. This is known as ‘pleural mesothelioma. Because it is so close, pleural mesothelioma can also affect the sheet of tissue covering the heart – the ‘pericardium’. Doctors sometimes call the pericardium the ‘heart lining’, in spite of the fact that it is on the outside. It protects the heart and allows it to move smoothly within the sack that surrounds it. So it does much the same job for the heart as the pleura do for the lungs.

How common is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is quite a rare cancer, but it is becoming more common. In the UK, just over 2,100 people are diagnosed with it each year. There are about 4 times as many cases in men as in women. This is probably because many cases have been caused by exposure to asbestos at work.

Asbestos and mesothelioma

Unusually for cancer, we know what causes the majority of cases of mesothelioma and it is most often linked to exposure to asbestos. The link between asbestos and lung disease has been known since the beginning of the 18th century. The link with mesothelioma was established 1960s. Unfortunately, the number of cases of mesothelioma in the each year is expected to rise sharply over the next 20 years because of the heavy use of asbestos in industry from the end of the second world war until the mid-1970s.

Between seven and eight out of 10 people, diagnosed with mesothelioma, say they have been in contact with asbestos. The risk is greatest from substantial exposure from an early age, or for long periods. But, there are a few patients that say they have no history of any heavy exposure.

Note: Many people who develop mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure may be eligible for compensation. Sufferers wishing to claim should talk to a solicitor about it as early as possible.


In its early stages, mesothelioma does not have many symptoms.

When the symptoms eventually develop, they are often caused by the cancer growing and pressing on a nerve or other body organ.

The commonest symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:

  • a pain in the lower back or the side of the chest;
  • a persistent cough;
  • a shortness of breath;
  • a hoarse or husky voice;
  • a loss of more than 10% of body-weight – when not on a weight-loss diet;
  • sweating and fevers; and
  • a difficulty in swallowing.

Statistically, these symptoms are most likely to be caused by some other condition, rather than by mesothelioma. However, if you have these symptoms, see your doctor. This is particularly important when you have been exposed to asbestos in the past.


Unfortunately, there is no cure for mesothelioma. Its treatment – as with other such cancers – is designed to relieve the symptoms as well as slowing down the advance of the disease. More information about pleural mesothelioma and its treatment may be found on

Lung cancer

The inhalation of asbestos fibres can contribute to the risk of suffering from lung cancer, which is the disease’s second most frequent form. Smoking tobacco carries by far the greatest risk of contracting lung cancer; but alarmingly, the combination of smoking along with a significant inhalation of asbestos fibres may multiply this risk factor by 50. More information on the complex subject of lung cancer and its causes may be found at the Cancer UK website; along with the details about the contribution that asbestos makes to the disease.