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Pleural Plaques

In most cases, our lungs work so flawlessly that we rarely think about the remarkable natural mechanics of these critical, life-sustaining organs. However, the continual inflation and deflation of the lungs require a delicate balance in order to function at their best. 

One important part of lung function is the protection provided by the pleura. The pleura inside the human chest cavity is comprised of two layers, an outer layer (parietal pleura) and an inner layer (visceral pleura). The slim space between these two layers contains a small amount of fluid to serve as cushioning, allowing the layers to glide smoothly during inhalation and exhalation. The outer layer of the pleura adheres to the chest wall, while the inner layer wraps around the lungs themselves. When the delicately balanced space between the layers develops thickened tissue, pleural plaques form. While pleural plaques themselves are benign and typically present no symptoms, they can be an important indicator of asbestos exposure. 

If you or a loved one was recently diagnosed with pleural plaques, it’s likely that asbestos exposure played a role in the development of your condition.  It may also become increasingly more likely that you develop another asbestos exposure-related illness such as asbestosis or mesothelioma.  In these cases, you may be eligible for compensation for your past and future medical expenses as well as financial damages for you and your family. At Bailey & Glasser, LLP, our attorneys work with victims of asbestos exposure to secure the compensation they need and deserve. Contact an intake specialist with our asbestos and lung disease team today, we can begin evaluating your claim.

Pleural Plaques and Asbestos

The grayish-white areas of cartilage-like thickened tissue known as pleural plaques are the most common indicator of asbestos exposure but typically take 20 to 30 years after exposure to develop. Because pleural plaques are almost always linked to asbestos, they offer an important warning that an individual is at greater risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related medical conditions.

Pleural plaques are a common diagnosis for those who worked with asbestos building materials or for those who lived or worked in buildings constructed with asbestos-containing materials. Even low levels of exposure may result in plaques, including exposure through a spouse or loved one’s clothing if they worked with asbestos.

Individuals considered at risk of developing pleural plaques, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related health conditions include:

  • Construction workers
  • Industrial employees
  • Veterans
  • Shipyard workers
  • Automotive industry workers
  • Asbestos textile workers
  • Drywall removers and demolition workers
  • Firefighters
  • Individuals involved in the rescue and cleanup of the September 11, 2001, NYC Twin Towers attack which released hundreds of tons of asbestos dust into the surrounding environment

Millions of Americans have been regularly exposed to asbestos in their workplaces since the 1940s despite early research recorded in 1924 in the British Medical Journal linking the versatile building material to lung disease.

Understanding Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in rich deposits all over the world including in both east and western United States in the coastal areas. Asbestos mining was a lucrative industry for much of the 1900s. Over 100 asbestos mines operated in America during the peak decades, however the last U.S. mine closed in 2002. Many industries processed the tough, flexible fibrous mineral into asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) because of the naturally insulating and fire-resistant properties of asbestos.

According to the EPA, a wide range of products included asbestos for many years worldwide. These include:

  • Roofing shingles
  • Floor tiles
  • Wall and attic insulation
  • Adhesives and patching compounds
  • Drywall, cement sheets, and milling paper used around woodstoves and fireplaces
  • Plumbing pipes
  • Furnaces
  • Fireproof fabrics
  • Automotive brake and clutch systems

Asbestos is made up of microscopic fibers that are shaped like tiny needles. Disturbing the asbestos fibers during mining, processing, or building with asbestos containing materials causes these fibers to be dispersed into the air.  Those who are exposed breathe them into their lungs and the tiny fibers become lodged in the body and migrate to pleural and peritoneal spaces, especially following patterns of lymphatic drainage.  There, they then cause years of inflammation leading to cell damage, mutation, and in some cases, malignancy and cancer. 

While working with asbestos presents the greatest risk of asbestos-related diseases including mesothelioma, living or working in buildings with asbestos materials included in their structure also puts individuals at risk. Over time, building materials begin to degrade, releasing microscopic particles of needle-like dust into the air and increasing the risk of lung disease.

Do Pleural Plaques Always Lead to Mesothelioma?

Pleural plaques are usually benign and, on their own, do not typically require treatment. While especially extensive plaques have been known to cause breathing issues,  about 1% of people diagnosed with pleural plaques describe a grating feeling when they breathe. In most cases, doctors discover pleural plaques incidentally when an individual undergoes a chest X-ray for another condition or procedure.

However, the appearance of plaques is a known risk factor for the later development of mesothelioma. In a study of over 13,000 workers exposed to asbestos in the workplace, researchers noted a significant correlation between pleural plaques and later diagnoses of mesothelioma, with the instances of malignancy increasing along with the increased duration of the exposure. Researchers describe pleural plaques as independent risk factors for the later development of mesothelioma.

Diagnosing Pleural Plaques

Because pleural plaques are rarely symptomatic, they’re almost always diagnosed during imaging procedures for other conditions such as chest X-rays and CT scans. In some cases, the scans might take place due to an existing diagnosis of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related disease but many times doctors discover plaques during treatment for unrelated conditions. 

Pleural plaques are rubbery thickened areas with well-defined edges. Over time they may become calcified. Doctors describe the images of pleural plaques as having a holly-leaf shape. Sometimes the thickened tissue itself has a basket-weave appearance.

Because the presence of pleural plaques indicates significant asbestos exposure, individuals with this diagnosis should speak to their doctor about scheduling regular screenings for mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases.