What is asbestosis?

Asbestosis is a lung disease that occurs in people who inhale asbestos (a mineral that forms tiny, durable fibers) many times over a long period.

When asbestos fibers and dust get into the lungs, they can cause fibrosis (thickening and scarring of the lungs). Asbestos can also cause the membranes surrounding the lungs (the pleura) to thicken. This scarring and thickening of lung tissue can make breathing difficult.

In some cases, asbestosis can lead to life-threatening complications, including lung cancer, heart disease and stroke. In severe cases, asbestosis can be fatal. It is estimated that asbestosis caused about 1,451 deaths per year in the United States from 1999-2013. Deaths from asbestosis continue to occur.

Who is affected by asbestosis?

Asbestosis occurs in people who have had long-term exposure to asbestos. This type of exposure happens most often in people whose jobs involved handling materials containing asbestos.

People who handle asbestos in their jobs may include:

  • Asbestos miners, installers, or removers.
  • Auto and aircraft mechanics.
  • Construction crews.
  • Electrical workers.
  • Railroad and shipyard workers.

Most people with asbestosis inhaled asbestos particles while at work before the 1970s. At that time, the U.S. government enacted regulations to limit on-the-job asbestos exposure.

Today, construction workers are the people who have the most exposure to asbestos. This group includes about 1.3 million construction workers and workers who are involved in building and equipment maintenance. In the past, most asbestos was used in construction, and this is still true today. Therefore, construction workers are still at risk if not warned about asbestos and if the employer does not make sure to follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. Asbestosis can take a long time to appear, so doctors sometimes diagnose asbestosis in people who acquired the disease many years ago.

What causes asbestosis?

Inhaling asbestos fibers or dust over a long period can cause asbestosis. Some people who breathe these particles develop thickening and scarring in the lungs.

Breathing in asbestos particles in the air causes asbestosis. Undisturbed asbestos — such as in insulation or tile — doesn’t increase your risk of the disease.

The building and manufacturing industries have used asbestos widely in the past. As a result, some people have developed asbestosis after repeatedly inhaling asbestos particles while at work in these industries.

Materials and products that may contain asbestos include:

  • Car clutch pads and brake linings.
  • Construction cement, putties and plaster.
  • Insulation.
  • Pipe wrapping.
  • Siding and roof shingles.
  • Vinyl floor tiles.

What are the symptoms of asbestosis?

Symptoms of asbestosis vary depending on the severity of the disease. Signs may not appear until up to 40 years after asbestos exposure. Symptoms of asbestosis can include:

  • Breathing trouble (feeling short of breath).
  • Chest pain and tightness.
  • Clubbing (large, rounded fingernails and toenails).
  • Cough.
  • Crackling sound when inhaling.
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness) and trouble exercising.
  • Weight loss with lack of appetite.

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