Exposure to asbestos has been linked to a variety of diseases including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and various cancers. Some of these asbestos related conditions are malignant (mea
ning cells divide uncontrollably and invade nearby tissues) while others are considered benign, or nonmalignant.
However, it is important to remember that just because a disease is called “benign” does not meant that it isn’t a serious or even life-threatening condition.
Malignant Asbestos Related Diseases
Research has shown that exposure to asbestos is the cause of certain respiratory cancers such as mesothelioma and lung cancer. However, the link between asbestos exposure and other types of cancers is not so clear cut, according to the National Cancer Institute.
- Mesothelioma: A rare and deadly cancer with a latency period that can run from 20-50 years. It affects the lining of the chest, lungs, heart, and abdomen.
- Lung Cancer: A malignant tumor that affects the lungs and causes severe breathing difficulties. Smokers who have been exposed to asbestos have a greatly increased risk of developing lung cancer.
- Laryngeal Cancer: Asbestos fibers may become lodged in the larynx when being inhaled through the throat. Some studies of asbestos-exposed workers hint at a possible link between asbestos and laryngeal cancer.
- Other Asbestos Cancers: Some epidemiological studies suggest a possible link between asbestos exposure and gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers, as well as an elevated risk for cancers of the throat, kidney, esophagus, and gallbladder.
Benign Asbestos Related Diseases
Studies have found that chronic exposure to asbestos may increase a person’s risk of benign asbestos related conditions such as asbestosis as well as various lung and pleural disorders, according to the Agency for
Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. Some of these conditions may be precursors to more serious illnesses like mesothelioma and lung cancer.
- Asbestosis: A progressive, long-term disease of the lungs caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. The fibers cause irritation and scarring, making it hard for the lungs to contract and expand.
- Pleural Effusions: A build-up of fluid between the two layers of the pleura, the membrane that lines the lung. Irritation from asbestos fibers can cause excess fluid to collect. It can be an early warning sign for mesothelioma.
- Pleuritis: An inflammation of the pleura of the lungs. Can lead to pleural effusions.
- Diffuse Pleural Thickening: When asbestos fibers make their way into the pleura they may cause the tissue to thicken. If this condition is spread over a wide area and interferes with breathing, it is known as diffuse pleural thickening. If the thickening is restricted to smaller areas, these areas are called pleural plaques.
- Atelactasis: The partial or complete collapse of a lung. One of the risk factors for this condition is exposure to asbestos, which may cause scarring of the pleura and/or pleural effusions.
- COPD: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a common disease often caused by smoking. However, in nonsmokers COPD is known to be caused by inhaling airborne toxins. Asbestos may be one of these toxins although a conclusive link has not been established.