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Descriptive Asbestos Injuries

Asbestos Injuries include the following:

Mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the lining of the lung (pleural mesothelioma) or the lining of the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma). The only known cause of mesothelioma in North America is exposure to asbestos.

Like the other asbestos-related diseases, mesothelioma has a long latency period (period of time between first exposure to asbestos and the diagnosis of the disease). In rare cases the latency period has been as short as 10 to 15 years after the first exposure to asbestos. Typically, however, mesothelioma occurs 20, 30, 40 or more years after the first exposure.

Unlike the other asbestos-related diseases, even low exposures to asbestos can lead to the development of malignant mesothelioma. It is not uncommon for someone to develop this cancer after only a few weeks of exposure at a summer job decades earlier or from washing clothing worn by a worker exposed to asbestos on the job. There are even cases reported in medical literature, of mesothelioma developing in people who simply lived near a site where asbestos products were used or manufactured.

The prognosis for someone diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, unfortunately, is not good. It is almost always fatal. Survival is usually limited to 12 to 18 months from the diagnosis, sometimes substantially less. There are some people, however, usually relatively young and in good health before being stricken with this disease, who have achieved long-term survival.


Lung cancer (also known as bronchogenic carcinoma) is a disease that can be caused by asbestos exposure, particularly in people who also smoked cigarettes. In a leading study of asbestos workers conducted at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, it was found that asbestos workers who also smoked cigarettes had a 50 to 90 times increase in lung cancer deaths when compared to people who neither smoked nor were exposed to asbestos. For non-smokers, the rate of lung cancer deaths was 5 times greater than the general population.

The Mt. Sinai study showed that asbestos exposure and the carcinogens in cigarette smoke act "synergistically" to multiply the risk for lung cancer in those people exposed to both substances.

All lung cancer cell types can be caused by asbestos. These include adenocarcinoma, bronchoalveolar, small cell, large cell, oat cell and squamous cell. Primary lung cancers caused by asbestos may occur in either lung and may be located in any of the lobes of the lung. Additionally, lung cancer can be related to asbestos exposure whether or not a person also has pulmonary asbestosis or asbestos-related pleural disease. (Although it would not be uncommon for a person to have both asbestosis and lung cancer.) The latency period for lung cancer is quite long, ranging from 15 to 20, 30 or more years from first exposure. While lung cancer attributable to cigarette smoking (which has a similar latency period) has been well-documented, less attention has been focused on asbestos-related lung cancers. It should be noted that when a person stops smoking cigarettes, his lung cancer risk immediately begins to drop, approaching the risk of a non-smoker 10 to 15 years after quitting. For someone occupationally exposed to asbestos, however, his lung cancer risk remains high even if he stopped smoking many years before (since microscopic asbestos fibers can remain in the lungs, continuing to do damage, for a lifetime.)

The prognosis for someone diagnosed with lung cancer is often good. Particularly if it is diagnosed early, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or some combination of these treatments can often result in complete remission and long-term survival. Additionally, modern treatments, especially chemotherapy, have far fewer side effects than they did even a few years ago.

Pulmonary Asbestosis

Inhaled asbestos particles can cause a scarring of the lung tissue called pulmonary asbestosis. Over a long period of time (the latency period is 10 to 30 or more years), microscopic asbestos fibers that are retained in the lung tissue can cause scarring to occur in the alveoli; the tiny balloon-like structures in the lungs where oxygen is distributed to the blood vessels. It takes many years for this scarring to become visible on an x-ray or CT-scan.

Pulmonary asbestosis is not treatable or curable. It is a progressive disease that gets worse over time and never goes away. Some people, however, can have pulmonary asbestosis that is visible on an x-ray and have no symptoms. Similarly, many people who develop pulmonary asbestosis never see or feel a progression of their disease. Symptoms include shortness of breath or an inability to take a deep breath, fatigue, dry cough, rales or crackles at the base of the lungs which can be heard with a stethoscope and are not cleared by coughing and clubbing or bloating of the fingertips.

In severe, end-stage asbestosis, a victim of this disease cannot live without supplemental oxygen and it may eventually lead to death by slow suffocation. Pulmonary asbestosis can also lead to a heart problem called cor pulmonale which occurs when a person's weakened lungs cause the heart to over-exert itself in an effort to adequately oxygenate the blood.

Other names for pulmonary asbestosis are pulmonary fibrosis, interstitial fibrosis, lung scarring, diffuse linear opacities (on x-ray) and pneumoconiosis.

Pleural Disease

Probably the most common asbestos-related illness is asbestos-related pleural disease. Also called pleural asbestosis, pleural plaques or pleural thickening, it is a scarring of the lining of the lung caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos-related pleural disease has a long latency period (10 to 30 or more years from first exposure) and can be detected on a chest x-ray or CT-scan. Like pulmonary asbestosis, asbestos-related pleural disease is untreatable and incurable.

There are many different degrees of asbestos-related pleural disease. Discrete, small areas of pleural scarring are called pleural plaques. While they usually begin as very small areas of scarring, they can grow over time, and become calcified and hard. Pleural plaques alone are usually not symptomatic, but they can be.

Diffuse pleural thickening is the scarring of a large area of the lining of the lung caused by asbestos. While there can also be no symptoms suffered by a person with diffuse pleural thickening, it is more likely that someone with this injury will experience shortness of breath. Over time, the amount of the lining of the lung that becomes scarred can grow, constricting the lungs and making it more difficult to take a breath.

While much more rare than pleural plaques or pleural thickening, atelectasis can also be caused by exposure to asbestos. Atelectasis is pleural scarring that causes a portion of the lung to fold onto itself, usually causing pain and discomfort with each breath.

Pulmonary asbestosis and asbestos-related pleural disease are often not recognized on chest x-rays and CT-scans reviewed by radiologists and pulmonologists. Specially trained doctors who are certified by the National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH) (who are called "B" readers) may sometimes detect asbestos-induced x-ray changes that other doctors miss. It is generally recommended that anyone who has been occupationally exposed to asbestos have a chest x-ray taken every 18 to 24 months and reviewed by a certified "B" reader or someone experienced in diagnosing asbestos-related diseases.

Other cancers

Other Asbestos-Related Cancers

In addition to lung cancer, other types of cancer can also be caused by exposure to asbestos. These include cancer of the esophagus, larynx, stomach, colon and rectum. Essentially, any part of the respiratory or gastro-intestinal tract which asbestos can come in contact with can be affected by an asbestos-related cancer. (Cancers of the gastrointestinal tract can result from swallowing airborne asbestos particles that pass through the nose and mouth).

Like lung cancer, any of these types of cancers can be asbestos-related regardless of whether a person is also diagnosed with asbestosis or asbestos-related pleural disease. Also, like lung cancer, the prognosis for people diagnosed with these cancers is often good, particularly if diagnosed in their early stages.

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