Asbestos is a group of minerals that have long, thin fibers. If asbestos is disturbed, fibers are released into the air and can be inhaled. Most of the fibers are exhaled, but some can become lodged in the lungs. Over time, scarring and inflammation can develop, causing serious health issues affecting breathing and leading to certain diseases.
Asbestos inhalation can cause a serious respiratory disease called asbestosis. Asbestosis is not a cancer but a progressive, long-term disease. It begins by inhaling asbestos fibers, which causes inflammation and irritation of the lung tissue. Scar tissue (fibrosis) then forms inside the lung. Normal breathing is impeded by the scar tissue, not allowing for oxygen and carbon dioxide to pass through the lungs appropriately. The University of Maryland Medical Center states that symptoms of asbestosis and lung fibrosis typically occur over a period of 20 years or more after exposure. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reports that shortness of breath is the main symptom exhibited in asbestosis. Other symptoms include chest pain and tightness, a persistent cough with mucus and a crackling sound in the lungs when breathing in.
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that is caused by asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma can affect the lining of the chest cavity and also the outside of the lungs, known as the pleura. The abdomen (peritoneum) can also be affected by this type of cancer.
The ATSDR reports a clear link between the health effects of asbestos exposure and lung cancer. Individuals who smoke greatly increase the risk for developing lung cancer, especially when prior exposure to asbestos occurred.
Other Health Problems
The University of Maryland Medical Center suggests a correlation between the severity of a specific disease and the length of asbestos exposure. Health effects are determined by the concentration, duration, frequency and chemical makeup of the asbestos fibers that were inhaled. Other health problems are pleural abnormalities which exist in the lining of the chest cavity, outside the lungs. Pleural plaques, pleural thickening and pleural calcification are associated with significant exposure to asbestos. The ATSDR reports that asbestos exposure may cause other non-respiratory cancers involving the kidneys, brain, bladder, gastrointestinal and colorectal area, but is most commonly associated with problems involving the lungs.