Asbestosis is a disease caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. For many of those affected by asbestosis, exposure to asbestos occurs repeatedly over time on the job or in their own home, where fibers are breathed in by individuals. Prolonged exposure puts workers and their families at serious risk for developing asbestosis and eventually dying from the disease.
Asbestosis and the Inflammatory Process
If inhaled, asbestos fibers can become trapped within the alveoli, the tiny sacs inside lungs where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place. The immune system will work to remove the asbestos fibers from the lungs, sparking an inflammatory process.
The process begins when scavenger white blood cells (macrophages) attempt to break down asbestos fibers in an effort to remove them. The macrophages are often unsuccessful in their efforts, rupture, and are killed. This attracts scarring cells, known as fibroblasts, to the site and results in the formation of scar tissue in the lungs (fibrosis).
The development of this scar tissue is dangerous, because it can eventually restrict a person's ability to breathe, as well as restrict oxygen from reaching blood in other parts of the body. Even more dangerous is the fact that it can take years or decades before an individual begins to see symptoms and is diagnosed with the disease. Asbestosis can reduce a person's lung capacity by twenty-five percent or more before there is observable damage.
Asbestosis is also associated with the development of other asbestos-related conditions, such as asbestos lung cancer. There is no cure for asbestosis, but doctors are able to treat symptoms when they finally do appear. The disease is a potentially fatal one, with 20,317 deaths in the United States caused by asbestosis between 1999 and 2013.
Pleural Plaques and Pleural Thickening
Asbestos pleural diseases are similar to asbestosis but occur in the pleura, the thin lining between the lungs and chest wall. Diffuse scarring extending along the chest wall is known as pleural thickening. More well-defined scarring is known as pleural plaques.
Both asbestos pleural thickening and pleural plaques can result in the shortness of breath and impair lung function in an individual. The diseases are permanent, progressive, and have no cure. The scarring within the pleura is often seen in conjunction with asbestosis, making it important for workers to share their work history and receive routine check ups with their doctors.
Who is at Risk for Asbestosis?
Insulators and shipyard workers are just two examples of workers who are at risk for an asbestosis diagnosis in their lifetime. In fact, in the 1990's, shipbuilding and repair was the second highest industry specified on death certificates of adult asbestosis victims in the United States.
Along with these occupations, there are many other workers in different blue collar trades that have been or are exposed to asbestos for prolonged periods of time. See the High-Risk Occupations page on our website to read more about workers at risk for an asbestosis diagnosis.