Asbestos Related Diseases
We cannot function without the mesothelium. It is a thin layer of protective tissue that lubricates and protects our internal organs. The mesothelium allows our lungs, heart, and abdomen to move easily inside our bodies. Without this protective membrane, our lungs, heart, and stomach could not freely expand and contract
When one contracts mesothelioma, the person’s mesothelial cells become malignant and spread widely and rapidly. The aggressive tumor expands and produces a fluid called a pleural effusion. This fluid builds up in the chest or abdomen. As the pleural effusions increase, the surrounding organs are pressed. Eventually, the cancer cells often metastasize (or spread) into the lungs, chest wall, liver, lymph nodes, or even the brain.
It is estimated that 2500 to 3000 people in the United States are diagnosed with mesothelioma annually. Tragically, despite wide-ranging medical research, there is no cure. Fortunately, the number of treatment options has steadily increased. A patient’s prognosis can be significantly improved when the cancer is uncovered early and treated effectively. Cancer researchers are working hard to develop innovative therapies that aspire to dramatically improve outcomes for future mesothelioma patients.
Asbestosis is a nonmalignant lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos. The American Thoracic Society defines asbestosis as “the interstitial pneumonitis and fibrosis caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers.” Like mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, asbestosis is caused by the inhalation of asbestos dust. The breathing of the asbestos dust is routinely associated with an individual’s job. A person’s occupational exposure to asbestos is the overwhelming manner in which asbestosis is contracted.
When someone works with or around asbestos-containing products, he or she breathes millions of tiny asbestos fibers. Eventually, these microscopic fibers lodge in the lung tissue. Over time, family members of people who work around asbestos products often also breathe in millions of asbestos fibers due to the dust brought home from work on clothes.
The body’s normal defenses cannot eliminate the long and sharp asbestos fibers. Consequently, the asbestos fibers lodge in the lungs. Inflammation of the lungs results and scar tissue (fibrosis) forms inside the lung. As time passes, the scar tissue in the lung accumulates. Scarred lung tissue fails to contract and expand in a normal fashion. The lungs become stiff. The resulting condition is referred to as pulmonary fibrosis. Essentially, this means that the lungs cannot function properly due to the scarred lung tissue. Additionally, the damaged lung tissue has a compromised and decreased capability for transferring oxygen into the body’s bloodstream.
Symptoms of Asbestosis
Asbestosis is associated mostly with dyspnea – shortness of breath. Persons who suffer from asbestosis have difficulties with their breathing because lung capacity diminishes as the disease progresses. They often have to catch their breath and are easily fatigued.Another common symptom is a persistent cough. Chest pain and tightness in the chest, as well as clubbing of fingers, and blood in the sputum (mucus) are also symptoms experience by those with this asbestos-related disease. If you experience the symptoms of asbestosis and have been exposed to asbestos in the past, you should immediately consult with a physician.
Diagnosis and Monitoring
As explained, a person’s occupational history is often determinative as to whether they suffer from asbestosis or instead have contracted another pulmonary disease. Your physician will normally conduct a complete physical examination, order chest CT scans or x-rays, and perform lung function tests. To facilitate a proper diagnosis, it is critical for you to share with your physician that you have a history of asbestos exposure. This provides an immediate flag to your doctor that you may suffer from asbestosis and that he or she should explore that possibility.
Asbestosis is more prevalent in cigarette smokers. It is presumed that this is because there is a reduction in the ability of smokers to clear asbestos fibers in the lung. Smokers should immediately stop if they are diagnosed with asbestosis.
Asbestosis is a debilitating disease that only worsens over time. As with mesothelioma it has a long latency period. This means that symptoms only appear years after a person’s exposure to asbestos. While the latency period for asbestosis is not as long as for mesothelioma, symptoms do not typically appear until at least 15 -20 years following an initial exposure to asbestos.
Persons diagnosed with asbestosis are at a heightened risk for becoming afflicted with lung cancer or mesothelioma. It is important for you to schedule and maintain regular appointments. The condition of your lungs must be monitored, and this will typically include undergoing regular chest x-rays.
Smoking and Asbestos Exposure
Mesothelioma is a malignant cancer that attacks the lining of the lung (specifically the mesothelial lining). Lung cancer differs in that it occurs within the lung itself. Although smoking is a cause of lung cancer, asbestos exposure also causes lung cancer.
Smoking and exposure to asbestos have a synergistic effect. They act together to cause the unfortunate outcome of lung cancer. It is clear that when a history of exposure to asbestos history is combined with a history of cigarette smoking, there is a much greater risk that the person will develop lung cancer than if he or she were only exposed to asbestos or only smoked. The synergistic effect is staggering. Scientific researchers have concluded that smokers who were exposed to asbestos are afflicted with lung cancer at a rate 50 to 90 times more than if they only smoked and did not have a history of asbestos exposure.
When a person diagnosed with lung cancer does not have a history of smoking, but does have a history of occupational exposure to asbestos, there is a high likelihood that the person’s lung cancer derives from asbestos exposure
Symptoms of Lung Cancer
Like mesothelioma, asbestosis and other asbestos-related diseases, asbestos-induced lung cancer has a long latency period. In other words the symptoms of the disease do not manifest until years after the person was exposed to asbestos. Following the first exposure to asbestos, it is typically 20 – 30 years (or more) for lung cancer to develop.
Asbestos-induced lung cancer has similar symptoms as lung cancer in general and with other asbestos-related diseases. A persistent and worsening cough, along with changes in breathing patterns, are the most common symptoms of lung cancer. Dyspnea, otherwise known as shortness of breath, is the other most common symptom. Other symptoms may include weight and appetite loss, persistent chest pain, coughing up blood, fatigue, wheezing and hoarseness.
If you experience any of these symptoms, you should immediately see your doctor.
The pleura is one of two membranes lining the lung and chest cavity. They are called the visceral pleura and the parietal pleura. Pleural plaques develop most frequently on the parietal pleura which is the outermost lining of the lung and which attaches to the inner chest cavity.
When viewed under a microscope, pleural plaques are comprised of collagen bundles in a “basket weave” pattern. Macroscopically, pleural plaques tend to be white and have a shaggy appearance. These plaques may become calcified as the years pass. They are then referred to as “calcified pleural plaques”.
Marker of Asbestos Exposure
Fortunately, pleural plaques are not cancerous. However, pleural plaques are considered a “marker” of asbestos exposure. This means that the presence of pleural plaques provides evidence that a person has been exposed to asbestos in their lifetime. Pleural plaques are manifestations that asbestos fibers were inhaled into the body. Pleural plaques are especially strong manifestations of asbestos exposure when the plaques are bilateral which occurs when both lungs have the presence of plaques on the pleura.
Pleural plaques, similar to other asbestos-related diseases, have a lengthy latency period. Consequently, pleural plaques do not develop until many years after a person’s first exposure to asbestos. The latency period is usually 15-30 years, but may be as few as 7 years. Pleural plaques are formed when asbestos dust is breathed in and the asbestos fibers work their way to the pleura, the outer lining of the lung. The fibers are difficult to dislodge. They inflame the surrounding tissue and pleural plaques subsequently develop.
Although pleural plaques do not mean you will develop devastating diseases like mesothelioma or lung cancer, they do signal that you are at a heightened risk for development of these serious conditions.
Diagnosis of Pleural Plaques
Pleural plaques are most often diagnosed through CT scans or x-rays. Since there are no symptoms of pleura plaques, they are most often discovered when CT scans or x-rays are performed for other medical conditions. If you know you have been exposed to asbestos in your lifetime, particularly if you have a significant history of occupational exposure to asbestos, it is advisable to get regular medical checkups. It is in these routine situations that pleural plaques are often diagnosed.
Pleural plaques are common among individuals who have been exposed to asbestos. As mentioned, they serve as a “marker.” The good news about pleural plaques is that there are generally no symptoms associated with them. Thus, you will not experience the unpleasant discomforts attendant to other asbestos-related diseases. There are situations however, where pleural plaques cause dull chest pains, or in severe cases, restrict lung expansion and cause shortness of breath. But for the overwhelming majority of cases, there are no known symptoms.
Treatment and Monitoring
If pleural plaques are found, you may be surprised to know that you do not need to undergo treatment. Again, they are not life-threatening, but are simply manifestations of asbestos exposure which place you at a higher risk for other asbestos-related diseases. The presence of pleural plaques should underscore to you the importance of regularly scheduled doctor visits. While you should consult with your doctor, it is likely you will undergo chest x-rays or chest CT scans every two to five years. Also, it is important that if you smoke, you should stop. This is because smokers who have been exposed to asbestos have a heightened risk for development of lung cancer and mesothelioma.