Asbestosis is a chronic inflammation of the lungs caused exclusively by inhaling asbestos fibers. Though it is not a type of cancer, it is a serious health condition and can be fatal. Though asbestos was known to be a cause of serious lung problems even earlier, a pathologist named Dr. Cooke first used the term “asbestosis” to describe a 1927 case of a 33-year old man who had worked in a carding room where asbestos fibers were processed. As the name suggests, there were no doubts of the connection between the disease and its origins with asbestos.
Types of Exposure
Asbestosis most often results from occupational exposure – coming into contact with asbestos in the course of one’s job. Anywhere that asbestos was mined or processed, or asbestos-containing materials were sawed, cut, or otherwise damaged posed a danger of airborne asbestos fibers. According to the CDC, construction workers accounted for nearly one in four patients who died of asbestosis. However, insulation workers and boilermakers had the highest mortality rate of any profession. Once inhaled into the lungs, asbestos fibers are unable to be removed by the immune system and often irritate the surrounding tissue, causing the fibrosis that is characteristic of asbestosis.
While primary exposure is more likely to cause asbestosis, secondary exposure also posed a risk to family members and friends of those who worked with asbestos. Fibers could stick on clothes and hair and be transported home if the asbestos worker did not change clothes or properly wash before leaving work. Since most workers were unaware of the dangers of the material, they did not take these precautions, and asbestosis has been known to develop in those who washed the clothes of asbestos workers.
Smoking and Asbestosis
Smoking alone will not cause asbestosis, but several studies have suggested that a person who smokes and is exposed to asbestos has a greater chance of developing lung problems, including asbestosis and lung cancer, than a nonsmoker who is exposed. Smokers and former smokers with asbestosis may also have a higher mortality rate than nonsmokers with asbestosis.