Abestos Diseases

The risk of asbestos-related disease increases with the duration and degree of exposure, and also depends on the type of asbestos fibre.

Asbestos exposure can cause serious diseases, including mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer. If you breathe asbestos fibres into your lungs, some of the fibres will be deposited in the air passages and on the cells that make up your lungs. Some fibres remain trapped in the lungs, causing severe respiratory damage.

Fibres that clear the lungs are carried away in a layer of mucus to the throat, where they are swallowed into the stomach. They may become stuck in the membranes lining the stomach or intestines, or be distributed throughout the body via the blood. Wherever the fibres are, they have the potential to promote genetic 'errors' in cell division that can lead to cancer.

Most Common Asbestos Diseases

Pleural Plaques

Plaques are small, localised areas of fibrosis found within the pleura of the lung, caused by exposure to asbestos fibres. The presence of pleural plaques is an indicator that a person has been exposed to asbestos but does not usually interfere with breathing.

Pleural Thickening

The pleura is a two-layered membrane which surrounds the lungs and lines the inside of the rib cage. Some asbestos fibres inhaled into lungs work their way out to the pleura and may cause fibrosis or scarring to develop there. This causes the pleura to thicken and this may show up on a chest X-ray. Pleural thickening extends over a large area and may restrict expansion of the lungs, leading to breathlessness


Asbestosis is a type of pulmonary fibrosis caused by asbestos fibres which have become lodged in the lungs after being inhaled from the air. The fibrosis causes the lungs to shrink, resulting in breathlessness. Asbestosis develops in some people who have breathed in a considerable amount of asbestos dust in the course of their work. It usually shows itself a long time after inhalation of the dust, often twenty or thirty years after the start of the exposure.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is primarily associated with the inhalation of cigarette smoke but the risk of developing lung cancer can increase with asbestos exposure. Asbestos-related lung cancer usually develops after an interval of 20+ years from initial exposure and after substantial exposure to asbestos. See also 'Mesothelioma' below, a cancer of the lining of the lungs.


Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelial cells and affects the pleura (the lining of the lungs) and the peritoneum (the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract). Mesothelioma is closely related to asbestos, particularly among men, and is usually a direct result of exposure in occupational settings. However, mesothelioma has been reported in people without any known occupational exposure to asbestos eg. partners and children who have come into contact with a family member who had asbestos on their clothing. The delay between initial exposure to asbestos and diagnosis can be anywhere from 10 – 50 years.

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