Asbestosis is a lung condition caused by repeated inhalation of asbestos dust. Asbestos is a common silica-based mineral composed of tiny individual fibers. When asbestos fibers are inhaled repeatedly they become irretrievably embedded in the lungs and can severely impair lung function. Repeated inhalation is necessary for asbestosis to develop and symptoms of asbestosis may take up to ten years to manifest.
When asbestos is handled, bits of tiny individual fibers break off, become airborne and can be breathed into the lungs. Once in the lungs the needle-like fibers penetrate the alveoli, small air sacs in which oxygen is transferred to blood cells as they pass through the pulmonary system. Over time and repeated exposure the accumulation of damaged alveoli impairs lung function and symptoms of asbestosis emerge.
Symptoms of Asbestos Inhalation
While the damage caused to individual alveoli is not curable, if exposure to asbestos stops the disease will not progress. As a result, individuals with minimal asbestos exposure may never exhibit any symptoms because lung damage was limited. Symptoms of asbestosis appear gradually when large areas of the lung become damaged.
- The first symptom of asbestosis is shortness of breath following physical activity.
- Other early stage symptoms may include a dry cough and tightness in the chest.
- Later stage symptoms include pleural plaques, well-defined areas of fibrosis on the pleura, the lining of the lungs.
- Breathing may gradually become more difficult.
- As the disease progresses shortness of breath occurs even at rest.
- Persistent respiratory infections may occur as may coughing up blood.
- Swelling of the hands, ankles or feet, chest pain, and fitful sleep.
Patients with advanced asbestosis may develop clubbed fingers. Other possible complications include heart failure, pneumothorax (collapsed lung), and pleurisy, inflammation of the pleural membrane that lines the lungs.
Health issues remain for a sizeable population that was exposed to asbestos prior to the implementation of regulatory protections and controls. Diseases such as asbestosis and other forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) caused by asbestos exposure continue to be a significant health issue in the US today. For more information on current asbestos regulation or assistance with understanding risks and health issues related to asbestos exposure, contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission, your state Attorney General or a qualified attorney.