Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate mineral found in deposits just below the surface of the ground in many regions of the world. Archeological evidence shows that many ancient civilizations used the tough, heat-resistant fibers of asbestos for shrouds, lamp wicks, and much more. The industrial revolution brought the use of asbestos to building materials and textile industries, leading to a mining boom for the raw material and many milling and processing plants so the versatile substance could enhance the durability, heat-resistance, and insulating properties of building materials and other products.
Unfortunately, this highly functional material also causes many serious illnesses, including rare and deadly mesothelioma, a type of cancer affecting the inner membranes that protect organs inside body cavities like the chest and peritoneal cavity.
How Does Asbestos Get Into the Body?
Mining, milling, and processing asbestos as well as working with asbestos-containing materials releases microscopic dust particles into the air. Though they’re invisible to the naked eye, the microscopic, shard-like fibers enter the lungs and digestive tract through breathing and swallowing.
The human organ system protects important body parts with thin, layered membranes inside body cavities in the chest, peritoneal cavity, and around the testicles. The lymphatic drainage system tries to rid the particles of asbestos from the body, but they tend to become lodged in the pleura and peritoneum – the delicate protective membranes around the lungs and the abdominal cavity.
Over time, the trapped fibers cause chronic inflammation which leads to other responses such as scarring, fluid buildup between the pleural layers, plaques, pleural thickening, and eventually cell mutation and the development of mesothelioma — cancer of the mesothelial cells that make up the protective membranes surrounding human organs.
What Illnesses Can Asbestos Cause Once It’s In the Body?
Diseases caused by asbestos include:
- Lung cancer
- Pleural effusion
- Pleural plaques
- Pleural thickening
For most asbestos related illnesses, symptoms don’t typically present themselves until decades after the exposure. For example, the average age of individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses is 72 years old, usually as long as 20 to 60 years after exposure to asbestos dust.
Prolonged exposure to asbestos in the workplace or at home can cause chronic lung disease known as asbestosis. By inhaling asbestos dust over a significant period of time, the thousands of tiny, needle-like fibers cause extensive damage to the lung tissue. This damage causes asbestosis, a form of pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring that stiffens the lung tissue so it can’t expand appropriately. Scarring develops gradually, so many individuals notice no symptoms for many years.
Symptoms of asbestosis include:
- Shortness of breath or breathlessness
- Inability to take a deep breath or shallow breathing
- Persistent dry cough
- Crackling sounds during inhalation
- Chest pain
- Digital clubbing, or a round shape to the fingertips caused by low oxygen levels.
In some cases, doctors find the diagnosis during chest X-rays or CT scans of the chest and lungs.
What is Pleural Effusion?
Pleural effusion occurs when excess fluid builds up between the two layers of the pleura – the thin protective membrane surrounding the lungs. The pleura is made up of two layers, one attached to the lungs and the other to the body cavity with a small amount of fluid that serves as a cushion and lubricant so the two layers glide smoothly together during breathing. While excess fluid buildup can result from pneumonia, heart failure, and other medical conditions, it’s also commonly associated with asbestos exposure. Pleural effusion itself is manageable with treatment but it also serves as a serious indicator of damage and increased likelihood of developing mesothelioma in those with known asbestos exposures.
Pleural effusion may have few or no noticeable symptoms and many times doctors discover it incidentally during X-rays and CT scans for other chest conditions.
If any symptoms at all, pleural effusion sometimes causes:
- Dry coughing
- Shortness of breath (Dyspnea)
- Difficulty breathing in a reclined position (Orthopnea)
What are Pleural Plaques?
When asbestos particles lodge in the pleural membrane surrounding the lungs they cause irritation and inflammation that trigger hyalinized collagen fiber formation. These appear as clearly-defined areas of thickening in the pleura. While rarely serious in themselves, plaques may appear as a precursor to or along with more serious illnesses, such as mesothelioma. They are typically asymptomatic but may cause mild symptoms including dry cough and breathlessness.
Understanding Pleural Thickening
When plaques become widespread and diffuse, without clearly defined edges, they lead to pleural thickening. This happens when extensive damage from asbestos triggers chronic inflammation in the pleura surrounding the lungs, eventually causing widespread thickening of the entire pleura, compromising flexibility, and constricting lung expansion in severe cases.
Pleural thickening is not only an indication of a greater likelihood of mesothelioma in those exposed to asbestos, but it can also cause respiratory failure even in its benign state.
Symptoms of pleural thickening include:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Inability to take deep breaths
- Dry, unproductive coughing
- Pain during inhalation and exhalation
If you experience any of these symptoms, please see your doctor and talk about your exposure to asbestos.
What is Malignant Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a rare and deadly type of cancer formed almost exclusively due to asbestos exposure. More than 20 million people are currently at risk of developing mesothelioma despite current EPA and OSHA restrictions on asbestos use.
Over time, the chronic inflammation triggers cell mutation resulting in cancer of the mesothelial cells which form protective membranes in the body cavities. While stage 1 mesothelioma has the most favorable prognosis, doctors still consider it incurable. Unfortunately, the lack of clear symptoms means mesothelioma is rarely diagnosed in its early stages and is more commonly discovered in stage 3 when it’s inoperable. In stages 3 and 4, malignant mesothelioma patients may choose treatments to slow the disease progression, extend life, and minimize discomfort.
Do You Have a Claim for an Asbestos-Related Illness?
If you or a family member have known asbestos exposure and have a recent diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease, now is the time to contact the asbestos and lung attorneys at Bailey & Glasser, LLP to learn about your options. You could gain the financial security you need for yourself and your loved ones by letting the lawyers at our firm advocate for you while you focus on your asbestos-caused medical condition.