There are four specific diseases that have been directly linked to asbestos exposure:

  • Pleural Plaque & Thickening
  • Asbestosis
  • Lung Cancer
  • Mesothelioma

Pleural Plaque/Thickening

Pleural plaque/thickening involves scarring of the lining of the lung indicating that an individual has had lung damage sufficient to be at risk for more serious complications. This condition is not cancerous. However, plaque or thickening impairs lung function, restricting breathing capacity. Usually there are bilateral asbestos markers in the lungs that come from exposure. This is significant in that it is an indication this person is at a greater risk than the general population of developing lung cancer or a cancer known as Mesothelioma.


Asbestosis is a chronic non-malignant scarring and fibrous hardening of the lungs, which is caused by heavy exposure to asbestos fibers over a period of many years. This scarring is called fibrosis, and the more asbestos fibers inhaled, the worse the scarring or fibrosis tends to become. However, the risk of asbestosis for those who do not work with asbestos is minimal. The symptoms of asbestosis are shortness of breath, coughing and a dry crackling sound while inhaling. In advanced states, asbestosis may cause cardiac failure. Asbestosis is a slowly progressive disease with a latency period of 15 to 30 years or more. When asbestos fibers lodge in the lungs (they often have hook like endings) the body sends anti-bodies to attack and kill the invading fibers. Because the fibers are virtually indestructible the anti-bodies die all around the fiber as their attack fails forming the scarring discussed above.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the most common type of cancer, found in individuals who have sustained prolonged exposure to asbestos. Lung cancer develops through the surrounding tissue, invading and often obstructing air passages.

The combination of smoking and asbestos is particularly dangerous as the two substances interact to greatly increase the risk of lung cancer. It can take 20 to 30 years or more to develop lung cancer after being exposed to large amounts of asbestos over a period of many years, because the inhaled asbestos is trapped in the lungs and can never be removed. However, in some cases, it may take less exposure to asbestos to cause lung cancer that it takes to cause asbestosis.


Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the thin membranes lining the thoracic and abdominal cavities and surrounding organs, including the gastro-intestinal tract. Virtually all cases of Mesothelioma are linked with asbestos exposure and is life threatening. Symptoms of Mesothelioma are shortness of breath, pain in the lower back or side of the chest, coughing, and weight loss. Mesothelioma is the most menacing of the asbestos-related diseases. It can affect people many years after only small or short-term exposure to asbestos, as well as family members who have been around a worker's contaminated clothing. Mesothelioma is not caused by cigarette smoking.

Risk Factors

There were many work environments, or trades in which people came, or still may come in contact with asbestos. Some of them are as follows:

Sheet metal workers Industrial Plants
Pipe fitters Plumbers
Shipyards (all jobs) Construction sites (all jobs)
Asbestos plant workers Military (Navy/Army tank units)
Hotels Schools
Telephone (installation/repair) Longshoremen
Boiler Makers Power Plants
Hospitals Home Improvement (all jobs)
Railroad workers Industrial Painter
Laborers Oil Refinery
Glass factory workers Loading Docks
Heating and Air Conditioning Cement plant workers
Automotive and other repair shops Metal lathers
Custodian/Handyman Boiler or Engine Rooms
Steamfitters Electricians
Asbestos workers/Insulators/Laggers Merchant Marines
Steel Workers (plants and construction) Utility Workers/Power Companies
Firefighters Operational Engineers
Chemical Plants  

Should You Test?

Yes if: you have breathing problems; and anyone with prolonged exposure to asbestos, or anyone who thinks they have had prolonged exposure to asbestos; Initial testing is an x-ray (four view is best: front, back, side, and oblique) which should be reviewed by a certified B reader radiologist. Its recommended that they be board certified. Further tests may include a pulmonary function test, blood work, a CT scan (high resolution thin slice CT also known as an HRCT) and/or biopsy. Its most common to have the chest x-rays or HRCT first if no symptoms.

Please be aware that it is your right to know what these tests reveal. Do not be afraid to question your doctor about your condition and to explain it in such a way that you understand. It may be prudent to get a second opinion if surgery is indicated.

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