What happens to your lungs when you breathe in asbestos?
For the most of the 20th century, the naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral known as asbestos was a hugely widely used material in industries ranging from construction to shipbuilding.
As time wore on, however, it became increasingly obvious – to scientists, medical professionals, and government – just how dangerous asbestos was to ingest in and breathe in, as happened routinely for workers whose occupations put them in close contact with the substance.
It all culminated in a complete ban on the importation and use of asbestos in the UK in 1999.
Sadly, though, the pernicious legacy of asbestos is one that continues to unfold today. This is partly because of new occurrences of exposure to the fibres, but also in relation to instances of exposure that occurred many decades ago, with symptoms of asbestos-related disease often only arising a long time after the material was first inhaled or ingested by the sufferer.
This helps to explain why, even into the 2020s, asbestos-related disease is responsible for more than 5,000 deaths in the UK every year.
But what exactly makes asbestos quite so dangerous a material to be in direct contact with – especially as far as the lungs are concerned – and what can you do if you fear you might have been exposed?
- 1 Why is asbestos so dangerous, and how does it affect the lungs?
- 2 The impacts of asbestos-related diseases
- 3 Can you get sick from breathing in asbestos once?
- 4 How long does it take for asbestos to affect your lungs?
- 5 What to do if you think you have been exposed to asbestos
Why is asbestos so dangerous, and how does it affect the lungs?
We are focusing on the lungs in this article, because it is this part of the body where asbestos can pose a particular risk. While direct contact with asbestos is far from good news for the human body in general, much asbestos-related disease – such as mesothelioma and lung cancer – is strongly related to the lungs, as we will explain in further detail later.
So, what makes asbestos especially dangerous and notorious? In truth, much of that notoriety effectively derives not from the material of asbestos itself, but more from the particular nature of its fibres.
Asbestos fibres are so tiny that they are very easy for the human body to inhale, without being stopped by the hairs and mucus that would otherwise help protect the body. But those fibres are also sharp, which allows them to hook onto the inner lining of the lungs and chest wall, and penetrate lung tissue. And they are extremely strong, which prevents them from being broken down by the body.
It is that combination of size, sharpness, and strength that is largely responsible for asbestos being so harmful to the lungs.
It is also why you should be especially vigilant of the risk posed by any asbestos that is disturbed, damaged or in poor condition, as this can present a higher likelihood of the fibres being released into the air, and subsequently inhaled. By contrast, asbestos material that is undisturbed and in good condition is believed to pose a negligible risk to health.
So, now that you are aware of how asbestos fibres can end up in the lungs, and how they can cause damage, what are some of the most common asbestos-related conditions that can develop in relation to this?
The rare and aggressive form of cancer known as mesothelioma occurs in the thin layer of tissue that covers many of the organs of the body. Although the disease can affect the lining of the stomach, heart, or testicles, it mainly occurs in the lining of the lung surface, and is strongly associated with asbestos exposure.
As we stated above, the small size and sharpness of asbestos fibres make it easy for them to be pulled deeper into lung tissue with each breath, thereby helping to cause mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is associated with such symptoms as chest pain, shortness of breath, and extreme tiredness. There is sadly an often poor outlook for those with this condition, not helped by the fact that it is frequently only detected once it has reached an advanced stage.
Only about half of people diagnosed with mesothelioma live for longer than a year after their condition is confirmed, and only around a tenth of sufferers live beyond five years after diagnosis. Approximately 2,500 people die from mesothelioma every year in the UK.
Although lung cancer – which is one of the most common and serious forms of cancer, affecting the cells of the lungs – is usually caused by smoking, a person can have a heightened risk of developing the condition if they have been exposed to asbestos in the past.
The number of lung cancer deaths per year that are linked to past asbestos exposure is similar to that for mesothelioma – about 2,500 a year.
Sadly, lung cancer is nearly always fatal. Only approximately a third of sufferers live for more than a year after diagnosis, and only one in 20 people survive more than 20 years following diagnosis.
Asbestosis is not a type of cancer; it is, however, a serious and long-term lung condition that, like the aforementioned two, can develop following the inhalation of asbestos fibres.
It is a progressive disease that is particularly linked to the breathing-in of asbestos fibres over an extended period of time. The accumulation of asbestos fibres in the lungs can cause scarring – otherwise known as ‘fibrosis’ – of the lung, leading it to develop a ‘honeycomb’ appearance.
The hard and inflexible scar tissue left behind from this damage causes the lung to stiffen and stop working properly.
Sadly, this damage to the lungs is permanent and likely to increase over time, and there is no cure for the condition once it has developed. The damage to the cells of the lungs can also increase the risk of developing other serious conditions such as mesothelioma and lung cancer.
The term ‘pleura’ refers to the tissue that lines the chest cavity, and that covers the lung surface. Pleural plaques are small areas of thickened tissue in the pleura, which almost always occur as a result of past prolonged exposure to asbestos – so, they can be considered under the broader banner of asbestos-related conditions.
Although pleural plaques are not fatal, and it is possible for someone with pleural plaques to live for many years without any serious health issues, they can make breathing uncomfortable.
If you do have pleural plaques, this indicates that you have come into contact with significant quantities of asbestos in the past. In that sense, the condition can serve as an early warning sign of your risk for other asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma or lung cancer.
Can you get sick from breathing in asbestos once?
It is technically possible for one-time exposure to asbestos to heighten the risk of health issues later. One example frequently cited on this subject is the 9/11 attacks. The collapse of the Twin Towers caused immense volumes of toxic substances, such as asbestos, to be released into the air of New York City, and it is thought that this may have driven up the likelihood of survivors or those in the vicinity of the attacks developing asbestos-related disease in subsequent years.
However, that is obviously an extremely exceptional case. The good news is that if you believe you have been exposed to asbestos just once, the risk of any future health issues is likely to be very low.
There is thought to be a much bigger risk of developing an asbestos-related disease for those who have breathed in considerable volumes of asbestos fibres over a prolonged period of time.
It typically takes millions of microscopic asbestos fibres to accumulate in a person’s lungs in order to cause damage to the tissues and bring about associated diseases – and this will often not be the case in incidences of one-off, short-term exposure.
Having said all the above, there is not a stipulated ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure, and any level of exposure can technically cause disease. So, you should be doing everything possible to avoid any degree of exposure to this toxic material at all.
How long does it take for asbestos to affect your lungs?
Asbestos is often referred to as “the hidden killer”, in part due to the fact that it can take a very long time after exposure for discernible health issues to arise.
A person doesn’t become ill the moment they inhale or ingest asbestos fibres. Instead, scar tissue as a result of the asbestos fibres that have become lodged in the lungs tends to accumulate very gradually, and any symptoms of an asbestos-related condition might not become apparent until 15 to 60 years after exposure to the substance.
However, with such symptoms often only occurring once an asbestos-related condition has reached an advanced stage of development, you should certainly not be depending on ‘taking the risk’ and spotting symptoms later. Instead, you should be taking every possible step to avoid coming into contact with the material in the first place.
What to do if you think you have been exposed to asbestos
To emphasise once more, because it is important not to panic: exposure to asbestos, especially a one-time, short-term occurrence, does not lead to the development of a serious or life-threatening lung disease for most people.
If, however, you believe or suspect that you have come into direct contact with asbestos in the past, it is important to be vigilant – and you should always seek medical advice if you develop symptoms such as coughing, chest pain, or shortness of breath.
When you do, you are advised to discuss with your GP any jobs you might have had in the past that may have presented an asbestos risk, as well as whether you might have lived with someone in such an occupation (given the risk, for example, of such a person bringing home asbestos-contaminated clothing). Asbestos exposure might also occur as a result of DIY work around the home, due to the material being disturbed without the responsible person knowing.
At the very least, it can be useful to have any past asbestos exposure documented in your medical records, so that your GP can be alert to the potential risk. Visiting your GP will also give you an opportunity to discuss any tests that you might need in order to put your mind at rest about your symptoms, as well as whether you should see a specialist.
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