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Asbestos Exposure – Three Major Health Effects

Asbestos is known to be dangerous, but do you know why? What can asbestos exposure do to someone? What if I am exposed, will I get sick? These are some common questions when it comes to asbestos.

The big fear of Asbestos is the fear of what it can do to you. If you are exposed, you might get sick. That to me seems a little vague. There is a lot more to asbestos exposure than just breathing it and then you’re sick. To better understand it, I’ll explain the breakdown of the three major health effects associated with asbestos exposure.



Asbestos fibers are micro in size but have a sharp physical appearance. Asbestosis is the scarring of the lungs. With asbestos exposure, fibers gets inhaled into the lungs and get stuck there. Over time they begin to collect in the lungs. The macrophages (white blood cells) found in the lungs attempt to get rid of it, but since asbestos is a mineral – not a living cell – it can’t do anything. In response to the macrophages failed attempt to engulf the fiber, it releases surfactant around the fiber to control it. Over time with enough exposure, the asbestos fibers in your lungs begin to increase which leads to an increase of surfactant from the macrophages. With enough surfactant on the lungs membrane, the respiration portion of the lungs (Alveoli) begin to get blocked off. This prevents respiration at the site and prevents proper breathing.

As many fibers result in the scarring of the lungs, Asbestosis is a dose-related illness. The more exposure to asbestos, the increase in the likelihood you will be infected. The problem is you won’t experience the illness for some time. It can take around 10 years to experience the symptoms of Asbestosis after exposure. Symptoms include shortness of breath and a dry, crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling. As of now there is no effective treatment for Asbestosis.


Lung cancer is the largest number of deaths related to asbestos exposure. It is caused by excessive exposure to asbestos. Similar to Asbestosis, it is a dose-related illness. Research has shown that individuals working in the mining, milling, and manufacturing of asbestos and those who use asbestos and its products are more likely to develop lung cancer as a result over the general population. Research has also shown that towns near the asbestos mining area had more episodes of lung cancer by asbestos than the general public. Aside from occupation and location, smoking has a synergistic effect with asbestos.

Being exposed to asbestos is hazardous, and smoking hurts your lungs, but combining the two can increase the chances of Lung Cancer. People exposed to asbestos are five times as likely to get lung cancer than those that weren’t. Chances of getting lung cancer by smoking are twenty two times as likely than those who don’t smoke. For those who smoke and are exposed to asbestos are 50 times more likely than those that are neither smoke or exposed. Long story short, if you are going to work around asbestos, limit your exposure and avoid smoking.

Symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, persistent chest pains, hoarseness, and anemia.


Mesothelioma is a very rare form of malignant cancer involving the membrane-like linings of one or more body cavities. Body cavities such as the lung, chest, abdomen, and heart, and almost all the cases are linked to asbestos exposure. To classify the cancer there are three different types of mesothelioma depending on the location of the cancer. If it occurs in the lung cavity it is called mesothelioma of the pleura. In the gut cavity it is termed mesothelioma of the peritoneum. In rare cases in the heart cavity, it is called pericardial mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma has had a lot of exposure throughout the years. The relationship between mesothelioma and asbestos exposure became well known in the early 1960s. It was originally believed that any mesothelioma must be caused by asbestos exposure. Today, it is recognized that other chemical or physical agents may also cause mesothelioma such as ethylene oxide. The vast majority of cases, however, appear to be linked to asbestos exposure.

Unlike Asbestosis and Lung Cancer, Mesothelioma does not have a clear dose-response relationship between asbestos exposure and the onset of mesothelioma. For now, there is belief that a single exposure could lead to mesothelioma, but this is still uncertain. This is mostly because we do not know how asbestos fibers are able to initiate mesothelioma in the Pleural Cavity or the Peritoneum.

Mesothelioma has a latency period of around 30 to 40 years after the first exposure to asbestos. There have been several cases where it occurred in less time. Overall, with a long latency period, it can be difficult to track where the asbestos exposure occurred. For those working with asbestos, annual medical examination can allow a physician to detect mesothelioma at an early stage of development.

Symptoms for Pleural Mesothelioma include:

  • sharp pain in one side of the chest
  • cough
  • may be short of breath
  • weight loss

Symptoms for Peritoneal Mesothelioma:

  • abdominal swelling
  • cramping pain
  • weight loss

Having a better knowledge of the three major health effects associated with asbestos exposure can help set a mind at ease. Asbestosis and Lung Cancer from asbestos exposure takes a considerable amount of asbestos exposure to get ill. It is still wise to avoid exposure to asbestos all together. As for mesothelioma, it is considered as a very rare form of cancer. Of the three major health effects from asbestos it is the least common.

Overall, it is just best to avoid asbestos exposure overall. If there is asbestos present, or you are unsure that you are exposed to it, call an expert to see how they can help you. They will be able to identify the air quality as well as the presence of asbestos at your site.